Shrek Forever After

Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 05/21/10 01:00:00

"You Can't Always Get What You Want"
2 stars (Pretty Crappy)

Once upon a time, there was an animated film called “Shrek” that had the idea of telling a tale that would subvert the conventions of the fairy tale by mocking them with ironic humor and utilizing a theoretically ferocious but ultimately soft-hearted ogre as its outré version of Prince Charming in order to demonstrate that it is what is inside a person that counts and not just physical appearance. While the end result may not have been quite as bold or subversive as some critics claimed at the time--many of the jokes (including numerous pop-culture references and several overt jabs at the cinematic and cultural influence of Walt Disney and his legacy) were simply variations of the stuff that Jay Ward did so brilliantly on television decades earlier with his “Fractured Fairy Tales” and the message about not judging people based on their appearance tended to fall by the wayside in order to make fun of the villain’s diminutive stature--it was pretty funny and provided viewers tired of Disney’s increasingly formulaic offerings of the time (including such classics as “Hercules” and “Dinosaur”) with a genuine alternative and they responded by making it an enormous hit at the box-office. As a result, a story that came to a perfectly satisfactory conclusion was extended a few years later with “Shrek 2” and while the film did offer up one fresh and genuinely funny innovation with the introduction of Puss N Boots, the suave feline expertly voiced by Antonio Banderas, the rest of it was largely a compendium of cultural references and parodies of others films that lacked the heart, soul and narrative drive of the original. Nevertheless, this installment also made tons of cash and it was eventually followed by “Shrek the Third,” a painfully labored and utterly useless effort that was just as superfluous and creatively atrophied as any of the items skewered in the original. And yet, the film was yet another success at the box-office (though it doesn’t seem as though any of the millions of people who paid to see it actually enjoyed it outside of the continued contributions from Banderas) and as a result, we now have “Shrek Forever After” (or “Shrek: The Final Chapter” or whatever the hell they are calling it now) and while its existence will no doubt bring smiles of joy to the bean counters at Dreamworks Animation, even the most indulgent fans of the series will have to admit that this is nothing more than a tired and creatively bankrupt attempt to further stretch out a property that never should have turned into a franchise in the first place.

In the long tradition of unnecessary sequels that try to artificially forge a link between themselves and the vastly superior originals by shoehorning in some heretofore unmentioned bit of backstory, “Shrek Forever After” starts off with a flashback to the time of the first film in which the king and queen of Far Far Away (John Cleese and Julie Andrews), in the hopes of breaking the curse that has befallen their daughter, Princess Fiona (Cameron Diaz) and freeing her from the tower in which she has been trapped, visit the crafty deal-maker Rumpelstiltskin (Walt Dohm) with an offer to turn over their entire kingdom to him in exchange for Fiona’s freedom. Alas, just before they can sign the contract, word comes that she has already been rescued, the deal falls through and Rumpelstiltskin vows to get revenge someday. Of course, that rescuer was Shrek (Mike Myers) and when the story jumps forward to the present, he and Fiona are married and are about to celebrate the first birthdays of their trio of adorable children/marketing opportunities. Although Shrek seems to have it all, he is beginning to grow somewhat weary with the daily routine of marriage and fatherhood and yearns for his long-gone days as a creature that instilled fear in the hearts of all who encountered him. After rudely blowing his stack at the birthday party for his kids and thoughtlessly telling Fiona that he wished that things were like they were before he met her, he stalks off and winds up running across Rumpelstiltskin, who magnanimously offers him the ability to have one entire day in which he can go back to being like his former self without any worries or responsibilities. The token price for such bliss? Rumpelstiltskin gets one day of Shrek’s past in exchange--maybe one from when he was an infant that he can’t even remember.

Apparently not being particularly well-versed in contract law Shrek agrees to the deal and before long, he is once again terrorizing the populace at large but before long, it gradually begins to dawn on him that things are not quite as they should be--there is no trace of Fiona or his family, none of his friends seem to know who he is and ogres are being rounded up and brought to Rumpelstiltskin, who is now the cruel and despotic ruler of Far Far Away. It turns out that the day that Rumpelstiltskin selected as his payment was Shrek’s birthday and since Shrek was never born, he never rescued Fiona, never had a family, etcetera. Not only that, once this particular day ends, Shrek himself will no longer exist either unless he can take advantage of the cleverly hidden loophole that states that everything will go back to the way it was if he once again receives true love’s kiss from Fiona. This is trickier than it sounds because when he finally finds Fiona, it turns out that she sprung herself from the tower, is now leading an underground ogre movement dedicated to overthrowing Rumpelstiltskin and has little time or use for either romance in general or Shrek in particular. In the hopes of changing both her mind and their existence, Shrek sticks around and tries to win her over with the help of old friends Donkey (Eddie Murphy) and an overweight-but-suave Puss in Boots (even if he can’t quite fit into the boots any more) before all is lost forever.

If the basic premise of “Shrek Forever After” seems a tad familiar to you, it is because the film, following in the tradition of many long-running television series, is essentially a takeoff of the Frank Capra classic “It’s a Wonderful Life” in which a depressed and despondent character is transported to a hellish alternate universe in which he never existed in order to learn just how precious and important his seemingly meaningless life truly is to those who love him. On the tube, such a gimmick is sort of tolerable because it can be written off as just a silly and sentimental diversion and that things will get back to normal with next week’s episode. However, in the case of a film like this, such an approach smacks of the worst kind of laziness--after having made countless millions of dollars for all involved over the years, you would think that the people behind this film would have taken the time to come up with something a little more original, especially considering the fact that this is allegedly going to be the conclusion to the series. Even if I were willing to be a little more forgiving of the lapse of originality, the premise still doesn’t work because in order for it to work, it requires our formerly beloved hero to act in a manner wildly inconsistent from what we have seen from him in the past. Here, his behavior is so self-involved and beyond the pale that it throws the entire film completely off-balance right from the start and it never quite recovers--younger viewers will wonder why their beloved hero is being so mean while older one will find themselves resenting just how shamelessly they are being manipulated. Beyond the “It’s a Wonderful Life” stuff, the film is basically a rehash of the first film from a side angle that isn’t nearly as interesting as it thinks it is--most of the jokes are reprises of ones we have seen before, the few intriguing ideas (such as the ogre underground) are introduced and then largely abandoned and the whole thing is presented in the diminishing miracle of 3-D, a big mistake since a good chunk of the film takes place at night and the darkness of the glasses only makes things murkier from a visual standpoint.

The lack of inspiration in the story area is also reflected in the generally uninspired vocal contributions from the high-powered and presumably high-priced cast--only Antonio Banderas seems to be putting in a real effort as Puss in Boots and as a result, he winds up stealing the film so decisively that I once again found myself wondering when the producers were finally going to get around to making the Puss spin-off that they have been promising for years. Once again trotting out his Scottish brogue, Mike Myers plods through his lines with all the enthusiasm of Krusty the Klown recording promos--at this point, he sounds more like one of your pals doing his imitation of Shrek than the real thing. Cameron Diaz is similarly listless as Fiona--the spark that made her such a sprightly heroine several films ago has long since been extinguished and she now contributes nothing to the proceedings other than a well-known name that can appear on the ads. As for Eddie Murphy, he does bring a little more energy to the proceedings but is hampered by the fact that the screenwriters haven’t thought of a single thing for Donkey to do other than to stand on the sidelines and toss out the occasional one-liner. As for the others, including Jon Hamm as another ogre, their contributions are so negligible that you don’t even recall hearing them until you see their names scrolling by during the endless end credits. The biggest disappointment, however, comes from the casting of Walt Dohm as Rumpelstiltskin. If you have no idea who Dohm is, don’t beat yourself up--he is one of the writers and story artists on the film and, as the story goes, he recorded Rumpelstiltskin’s lines as a guide for the animators and people liked his contributions so much that they left them in instead of hiring another actor to re-record them. This has happened in animated films from time to time (the voice of the dog in “Up” is that of one of the film’s co-directors) but while it makes for a nice behind-the-scene story for the press junket roundtables, it doesn’t do much for the movie--his contributions are average at best and the fact that the filmmakers would go along with this instead of making the effort to find an actor with a more distinctive voice (which is especially odd since Dreamworks animated films have always relied heavily on star voices in the past) only furthers the sense that no one involved ever looked at this project as anything more than an easy cash grab to be made with as little genuine effort or inspiration as possible.

To be fair, “Shrek Forever After” does have a few admirable qualities--the pop-culture gags have been blessedly kept to a minimum this time, the story moves quickly enough and Puss in Boots still manages to inspire big laughs--and it is better than either of the previous sequels. Then again, the same could probably be said about “Shark Tale” and you don’t often hear people talking about that being some unsung work of genius. (By the way, if you had somehow managed to block all memories of “Shark Tale” from your mind, I deeply apologize for forcing you to recall it once again.) That said, the film is a completely pointless and useless piece of product that exists only because the earlier “Shrek” films made so much money and if this one does as well (and it probably will due to the lack of any clear family film on the horizon until next month’s “Toy Story 3”), my guess is that all the claims of this being the finale will fall by the wayside--a twist ending that only the accountants would have the nerve to describe as happily ever after.

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