Sunday, May 20, 2007

Shrek the Third / **½ (PG)

With the voices of:
Shrek: Mike Meyers
Princess Fiona: Cameron Diaz
Donkey: Eddie Murphy
Puss in Boots: Antonio Banderas
Prince Charming: Rupert Everett
Queen Lillian: Julie Andrews
King Harold: John Cleese
Artie: Justin Timberlake
Merlin: Eric Idle

DreamWorks Animation presents a film directed by Chris Miller. Written by Andrew Adamson and Jeffery Price & Peter S. Seaman and Jon Zak & Howard Gould. Based on the book “Shrek!” by William Steig. Running time: 92 min. Rated PG (for some crude humor, suggestive content and swashbuckling action).

Reviewing “Shrek 2” I wrote that the film “never reaches the magical platitudes of the original. While the first film played like an enduring classic, the second slips into the realm of passing fad.” With “Shrek the Third” the slide into mediocrity continues. For kids, this phenomenon will be barely noticeable, as the third installment still plays to the same fairytale spoof, pop-culture referencing mentality that has become the series’ signature. But the freshness label on this product seems past expiration. The free-spiritedness of the earlier films comes only in spurts here; most of the time the film is just going through the motions.

As the film opens we find the ogres Shrek (voiced by Mike Meyers, the “Austin Powers” series) and Fiona (Cameron Diaz, “Charlie’s Angels”) happily married and still in the kingdom of Far Far Away. Fiona’s father, King Harold (John Cleese, of “Monty Python” fame), has been ill and Shrek has been standing in as king in his stead. One of the best laughs comes during the King’s dying moments, a fun spoof on the false death scenes found in so many films. However, it felt strange for the filmmakers to throw in a concept like death so early in a family film with such an otherwise light approach to life.

After the King’s passing, Shrek must take the throne for good, but his insecurities won’t allow him to accept a position of such responsibility. Those insecurities also manifest themselves in his poor reception to Fiona’s news that he will soon become a father. Facing two great responsibilities is too much for the jolly ogre, who decides he must track down another heir to the thrown, a teenager named Arthur Pendragon (Justin Timberlake, “Alpha Dog”), who prefers to go by “Artie.”

With his sidekicks Donkey (Eddie Murphy, “Norbit”) and Puss-in-Boots (Antonio Banderas, “Spy Kids”) in tow, Shrek now must throw himself into a new realm of responsibility, the task of mentoring a teenager on the importance of owning up to responsibility. The irony is rolled on a little thick here. But with the help of the absent-minded wizard Merlin (voiced by Eric Idle, another “Python” alum), Shrek just might be able to trick Artie into the role of king.

Meanwhile, Prince Charming (Rupert Everett, “My Best Friend’s Wedding”) is still fuming about losing his chance at the crown to Shrek. He has gathered all the fairytale villains, from Frumpypigskin (or whatever his name is) to Captain Hook and the Ugly Stepsisters, to take siege on Far Far Away Castle. Fiona recruits Queen Lillian (Julie Andrews) and the fairytale princesses Rapunzel, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty and Snow White as resistance fighters against Charming’s forced reign. The filmmakers have more fun with one of Julie Andrews’ songs from “The Sound of Music” and Snow White’s sing-songy nature in a couple of the film’s other brilliant moments.

I also enjoyed the baby nightmare Shrek has about becoming a father. (I think it inspired my own puppy nightmare last night; there were puppies relieving themselves everywhere.) And I did like the direct nature of the film’s message about being true to who you are. But for its few shining moments, much of the adventure this time around is stale and somewhat contrived. For example, Artie is too confident to be the loser he’s portrayed as when Shrek and friends first meet up with him.

I opened my “Shrek 2” review with a list of all the movies that film referenced. I don’t think I can even remember more than two or three of the references in “Shrek the Third”, although they come just as often. It seems these jokes are becoming either more obscure or less related to the material that surrounds them. Even those I can remember are almost too subtle to have any comedic effect. Gingy’s (The Gingerbread Man) life passes before his eyes at one point and he sees images resembling the title sequence of the television show “The Six Million Dollar Man.” But where’s the voice-over saying, “We can rebuild him. We have the technology…. Better than he was before. Better, faster, stronger.”?

Plus, there aren’t enough show-stealing antics from Shrek’s sidekicks, Donkey and Puss-in-Boots. Their subplot seems almost like an afterthought, as if all the other characters are getting in the way. Characters like Gingy started off as referential jokes and have become major players, but without the personalities to allow us to care for them as we do Donkey, who earned the audience’s respect through his persistent, annoying effervescence in the first film.

One point that has bothered me about each “Shrek” film has been their reliance on bodily function humor; or more directly, the secretion of gasses and other waste by-products. I understand there is nothing a kid loves to hear more than a giant ripper; I do have a five-year old, after all. But these cheap gags have become so abundant that it seems to be a security blanket for the filmmakers. If a sequence isn’t working, they just punctuate it with a whoopee-cushion, a grimace and the desperate hope that the audience rolls in the aisles with laughter.

It isn’t that “Shrek the Third” is unenjoyable. Visually, it is just as glorious as any of the past installments, sometimes even more so. And it retains the series’ wonderful on-going message of self-acceptance. But if the makers of the series continue to rehash the same material in the same way each time around (a fourth installment is already in the works), moviegoers will eventually want to stay far far away from Shrek, his freakish friends and all their flatulence.

Buy it: Shrek DVDs

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