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Shrek the Third (2007) Print E-mail
Friday, 18 May 2007
DreamWorks animation may have gone to the “Shrek” trough once too often. Although it’s often funny, there’s a hangdog air to “Shrek the Third” that, coupled with lack of action and a stop-and-start pace, tends to wear out the viewer well before the movie comes to its highly predictable ending. The first “Shrek” had a lot of charm, an oddball approach to fairy-tale material, and enough stuff for adults and for kids to make it a winner. “Shrek 2,” though it made even more money than the first, wasn’t as good. And “Shrek the Third” is that much further away from “good.”

One of the major differences between the approaches of DreamWorks Animation and Pixar to their CGI features is that Pixar makes their films for the whole family throughout, while DreamWorks includes some gags for children, some for adults. Same general appeal, different way of thinking—and this time out, the weaknesses of the DreamWorks approach are beginning to show even more clearly.

Shrek (Michael Myers) and his beloved ogre princess Fiona (Cameron Diaz) are still at the castle of her parents, the royal family of the land of Far Far Away, though Shrek longs to get back to his beloved swamp. King Harold (John Cleese), now permanently a frog, has fallen ill, requiring Shrek and Fiona to stand in at a court ceremony in royal garb. This does not work out well, to say the least.

But Harold is actually dying, and gasps out a few last words before he croaks (a gag so obvious that the movie avoids making it)—and among them are his declaration that Shrek and Fiona must become the new King and Queen of Far Far Away. Shrek is aghast at the thought—this kind of life has no appeal for him—so before he dies, Harold reveals there is one other possible heir, Arthur. (The movie drops in names from the Arthurian legends—Arthur, Lancelot, Merlin—but that’s as far as the links go.)

Together with his pals Donkey (Eddie Murphy) and Puss in Boots (Antonio Banderas), Shrek sets sail for Worcestershire, where Arthur lives. But just as the boat leaves the dock, Fiona, staying behind, reveals something that disturbs Shrek: she’s pregnant. This does lead to Shrek’s funny, wildly animated nightmare of HUNDREDS of baby ogres, gurgling, laughing and overwhelming him. Donkey himself is a father—the mother being the dragon we first met in “Shrek,” his kids are amusing-looking little donkey-dragons, glimpsed briefly in the end credits of “Shrek 2.” So he doesn’t have too much sympathy for his big green pal.

Worcestershire proves to be the medieval equivalent of high school, complete with teenage girls who speak an astonishing (and unconvincing) blend of medieval jargon and Valley Girl slang. Arthur is Artie (Justin Timberlake), a dork picked on by the big men on campus. He agrees to go with Shrek, though he has some reservations: “I’ve been kidnapped by a monster who’s trying to relate to me!” he exclaims later on.
There are shipwrecks, an encounter with Merlin the Magician (Eric Idle), whose magic isn’t exactly reliable. Back in Far Far Away, handsome Prince Charming (an entertaining Rupert Everett) has just been fired by the dinner theater where he’s been performing the Happy Ever After ending he feels he’s entitled to. Now that Shrek is away, he makes his move, taking over Far Far Away and imprisoning Fiona and her fairy tale princess pals—Sleeping Beauty (Cheri Oteri), Snow White (Amy Poehler), Cinderella (Amy Sedaris) and Rapunzel (Maya Rudolph), as well as Fiona’s mother, Queen Lillian (Julie Andrews). Naturally, there will be a confrontation when Shrek and his buddies return with Artie.

One of the odder problems with “Shrek the Third” is that the returning cast of characters really doesn’t DO very much. Shrek and friends go to Worcestershire, Shrek and friends walk away from a shipwreck, Shrek and friends meet Merlin, etc. There’s a lot of traveling around and a great deal of talk, but there’s virtually no action, and all confrontations that mean anything are in the last reel. There’s no doubt at all that Shrek will eventually welcome fatherhood, or that he and Fiona will return to the swamp. This entire movie is mostly a matter of marking time—providing enough gags and movement to fill up 90 minutes.

Occasionally there are bad ideas, such as Queen Lillian gaining a superpower of battering down walls with her forehead. If she could do this all along, why didn’t she do it earlier? Something the same is true for the fairytale princesses, too. Each can do something swell, but they don’t do these swell things until the plot requires them to. A Cyclops henchman of Prince Charming is abruptly revealed as a doting father just when Shrek needs to learn that’s a good thing—but why does he learn it from a bad guy? Also, as the movie builds to a finale that’s actually rather tepid, but requires Fiona and the Princesses to mostly escape and for Shrek and friends to return to Far Far Away, everything stops dead so Artie can learn self-confidence and gain a sense of royal responsibility.

The Big Bad Wolf, the noisy Three Little Pigs, Pinocchio and the Gingerbread man also return, but I hope it wasn’t just so the movie can include a shot of the Gingerbread man defecating a gumdrop. They don’t really do much more than Shrek and pals. Although there’s a funny bit involving Donkey and Puss in Boots toward the end, neither character really has much to do, a major letdown considering how entertaining they were previously.

Technically, the film shows yet more advances in computer animation. This time, the faces are amazingly expressive, with subtle shifts in emotion clearly visible. On the other hand, when Prince Charming abandons his stick horse from the dinner theater in favor of a real one, the supposedly real horse is badly animated and less convincing than the fake one. Aside from the impressive work with faces, there are no big showy scenes—look what WE can do!—in terms of animation. But there are small, very good bits, as with the dying frog king; also, the timing of gags and quick changes is excellent, absolutely top-notch. This kind of thing may keep audiences from noticing that very little actually HAPPENS in “Shrek the Third.”

There are some nice, almost surrealistic, touches, such as Charming’s henchman Captain Hook (Ian McShane) inexplicably being an expert pianist. And there’s a very funny response to Artie’s declaration to the assembled bad guys that “the only one standing in your way is you.” This bit is another example of the split-second timing director Chris Miller frequently employs. Good timing will get you through weak jokes better than great jokes will get you through weak timing.

The cumbersome screenplay is the work of a small herd of writers: William Steig wrote the original novel, Andrew Adamson came up with the screen story, Jeffrey Price, Peter S. Seamon and John Zack did the screenplay, with Howard Gould credited with “additional screenplay material.” It’s a shame that all these—and there are probably more, uncredited—couldn’t come up with a warmer, funnier movie. The direction and animation are the primary source of humor, not the dialogue.

This is a summer of sequels. The two big ones so far, “Spider-Man 3” and “Shrek the Third,” are entertaining but comedowns from the previous films, particularly “Shrek the Third.” The third “Pirates of the Caribbean” is waiting in the wings; one can only hope it too won’t be a step down.

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