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Shrek the Third

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 05/20/07 18:08:38

"Stick with the second."
2 stars (Pretty Crappy)

After “Shrek 2” proved you could have a sequel that’s not only smarter and funnier than its predecessor, but also willing to expand the story instead of weakly reworking old ground, you go into this third chapter expecting more than the usual retread. Sure, “Shrek the Third” has some laughs, but they don’t hit as hard or as often. And it has the occasional charm, but it doesn’t shine through as easily as the previous chapters. It’s the sort of follow-up that you enjoy enough while watching, only to easily let it slip from memory all too soon.

So in dealing with “Shrek the Third,” the question isn’t “what went wrong?” but “what didn’t go right?” And here we turn to the screenplay, credited to seven writers. This is not uncommon in animated films - the first “Shrek” landed seven writers; five were credited to the sequel - but here, finally, the notion of too many cooks burns through every frame. There’s so little focus to the story that halfway through, I realized I had forgotten the reason for Shrek’s latest journey, and more importantly, I didn’t care about it once I remembered.

The story? Well, here goes: King Harold dies, leaving the crown to Shrek. But Shrek’s not cut out for a king, so he sets out to find the only other heir to the throne, a teen dork named Artie. Meanwhile, Prince Charming rounds up all the fairy tale villains he can find and plots an invasion of Far, Far Away, where he plans to crown himself king. Meanwhile still, Fiona announces she is pregnant, sending Shrek into a fit of anxiety over his impending paternity.

It’s not that this is too much for a movie to handle. It’s that none of these plotlines is fully developed, leaving us with three undercooked stories mixed together. (Again with the kitchen analogies!) Let’s take a look at the Artie plotline. Shrek, Donkey, and Puss arrive at the kid’s high school, where they discover he is the local loser; even the role-playing dorks torture him. For a brief moment, this all works, as we get Shrek-ized parody of Ye Olde High School. But it’s over all too quickly. A couple of tiny scenes in which Shrek reveals Artie’s destiny, and then they’re back on their way back home.

Where’s the sense of sly fun? Just think what kind of comedy could be had from blending “Shrek” fairy tale spoofery with modern high school cliché. The screenplay almost gets there for a second, with Lancelot turning out to be the big man on campus (the producers even wheel in John Krasinski to voice the guy). But we blink, and he’s gone, the character being all set-up and zero pay-off. The writers could have milked so much out of this idea that it’s slightly depressing to realize that what winds up in “Shrek the Third” is all we’re ever going to get.

The whole Artie character never really works anyway. We’re tossed a handful of hackneyed plot turns - much is made of Artie becoming upset that Shrek lied to him by omitting the fact that Shrek turned down the throne first, but really, does this whole thread add anything to the story beyond “oh, we need a scene where Artie runs off upset, just so we can have him come back later”?

(The ending, in which Artie must decide whether to accept the crown, hits all the wrong notes. For too long, we think the finale will instead be all about whether or not Shrek will accept the crown. Why would we think this, instead of the correct conflict? Because the script never bothers to focus on the right details, leaving the story a muddle.)

When a joke works, the filmmakers show surprisingly little patience for it. In one scene, Snow White’s gentle song to the forest critters turns suddenly into a war cry, set to the tune of Led Zeppelin. But as soon as the joke starts, it slams to a halt, so the soundtrack can instead blare Fergie’s tired cover version of Heart’s “Barracuda.” This sort of thing happens all over the place, with half-jokes and almost-punchlines left dangling in a frantic shuffle. With such awkward starts and stops, the rhythm gets all screwy all too often, and if there’s one thing that’s bound to kill comedy, it’s screwy rhythm.

This is Shrek with no passion, no winking attitude. It’s a kiddie flick that goes through the motions, no more. The part with the princesses fighting back against Charming and his henchmen is so flat and uninspired that it exists only to waste time with bland action-y bits. The same goes for the jokey segment in which Puss and Donkey body-swap; it’s a desperate gag that never clicks.

And so the film works best in tiny, isolated moments. The cast (Mike Myers, Eddie Murphy, Cameron Diaz, Antonio Banderas, Julie Andrews, John Cleese, and Rupert Everett all return; Eric Idle pops by as Merlin; Amy Poehler, Maya Rudolph, Cheri Oteri, and Amy Sedaris are the princesses; Justin Timberlake is Artie) pull some laughs out of a smart line reading here and there, and a handful of visual gags earn solid laughs.

But overall, the fire is gone, and “Shrek the Third” is just another soulless sequel. Kids will enjoy it enough, on the same level they enjoy those Disney direct-to-video sequels: as fluffy time-wasters, put easily out of mind as soon as the credits start rolling. Parents, meanwhile, will be left wondering why all the laughs, the snarky wit, and the gentle joys of the series had to go so far, far away.

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