The fourth time is the charm
By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, May 21, 2010
The Shrek we meet at the start of "Shrek Forever After" is a shell of an ogre: mean and green on the outside, but all mellow yellow inside. Married life and fatherhood have made him soft, and no longer scary. Gone are the angry mobs who used to chase him with pitchforks, replaced by some obnoxious brat at his triplets' birthday party, who keeps demanding, "Do the roar!" as if Shrek were just another celebrity with a worn-out catchphrase.
Can this be the monster that we know and love, or is he merely going through the motions, catering to the clamoring crowds that want to see him do what he's always done, one more time?
The same thing might be asked of the movie, the fourth and supposedly final chapter in the animated series. Has "Shrek Forever After" still got it, or is it just a crass attempt to cash in on a now-tired franchise?
Believe it or not, there's life in the old boy yet. After a disappointing third outing, this "Shrek" brings the cycle of fairy-tale-themed films to a fine finish.
The premise itself will sound familiar. Not from earlier Shrek movies, but from the 1946 "It's a Wonderful Life." In an attempt to get back some of his mojo, if only for a day, Shrek (voice of Mike Myers) finds himself in the position of George Bailey, in a world in which he has never been born.
That's because he makes a magical deal with Rumpelstiltskin (Walt Dohrn). Shrek gets 24 hours to live the life he used to have, before fame and family came along. In return, Rumpelstiltskin gets to take a day from Shrek's life.
Our hero should have read the fine print more carefully. Rumpelstiltskin picks the day Shrek was born, meaning that, while Shrek now finds himself in a world unencumbered by diapers and responsibility, it's also a world in which all the good he's done has had no effect. He wasn't there to rescue his wife, Fiona (Cameron Diaz), from her tower prison. Rumpelstiltskin is now king, and his kingdom is a police state, run by witches who hunt down ogres and toss them in jail. Fiona is the Amazonian leader of the ogre resistance movement.
Fortunately, there's an escape clause: If he and Fiona share one "true love's kiss," Shrek gets his old life back. All he has to do is make Fiona fall in love with him -- all over again. If he doesn't, he'll evaporate come sunrise.
That much is reminiscent of the first two movies, which also revolved around the power of a transformative kiss. But there's enough here that's clever and new -- and at times very funny -- to keep things from feeling stale.
Many beloved old characters return, only much transformed. Gingy the gingerbread man (Conrad Vernon) is now a scarred professional gladiator, fighting animal crackers in an arena for sport. Donkey (Eddie Murphy) is a mangy beast of burden, pulling the paddy wagon into which Shrek is thrown after he's captured. Most hilariously, Puss (Antonio Banderas) can no longer fit into his boots, having put on well more than a few pounds as Fiona's pampered pet.
Among the new characters, Rumpelstiltskin makes for a perfect villain. Vain, insecure and ridiculous in an assortment of constantly changing wigs, he's a pleasure to boo and hiss at.
The Pied Piper also makes an indelible debut, without ever uttering a word. Hired by Rumpelstiltskin to round up ogres, he carries a high-tech flute with him -- it has settings for rats, witches, ogres, etc. -- that makes dancers out of whatever and whomever he wants, to consistently amusing effect. If you liked the episode of "Glee" where the football team shakes it, improbably, to Beyonc's "Single Ladies," you'll love the sight of hulking, line-dancing ogres.
Have we heard some of this before? Sure. But as with the best fairy tales -- the ones that bear repeating again and again -- the delight in "Shrek Forever After" is not in the tale itself, but in the telling.
Contains slapsticky action and bathroom humor.