'Shrek's' Funny, Yet Third Time's Not So Charming

Donkey (Eddie Murphy) and Shrek (Mike Myers) in the Far Far Away land of sometimes witty dialogue and super-duper flames and water.
Donkey (Eddie Murphy) and Shrek (Mike Myers) in the Far Far Away land of sometimes witty dialogue and super-duper flames and water. (Dreamworks Animation Llc)
By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 18, 2007

"Shrek the Third" manages to be something of a paradox: It contains two theoretically self-canceling polarities. It's (a) quite funny and (b) quite bad.

Hmm, possibly that's actually harder to pull off than to make a movie that's (a) funny and (b) good or (a) unfunny and (b) bad. But the end result is that you laugh a lot and you go home grumpy.

The DreamWorks animators, all 600 of them or whatever, have by this time total technical control of the universe they've engineered, at least down to the cellular level (the faces still look somewhat waxy and the hair somewhat polyurethane). They've created a great range of motions and their weirdly real-unreal populace is able to dance, fence, leap, lurch, fall and wiggle with amazing verisimilitude that somewhat overcomes the dead lines of the computer-designed architecture in the background.

And boy, can they do water and flame well. Their flames lick and hiss and undulate in rapturous hunger, eerily insubstantial; the water you can feel, with its tranquil yet subtly modulating surface, capturing not only fluency but a billion pixels of light to throw off at the camera lens -- that is, if there is a camera lens, and come to think of it, there probably isn't anymore. But the point is, you totally believe in the artifice that is before your eyes.

And you know what? Big deal. That's not news. Who cares? What have you done for me lately? That was the big story of 1999.

The big story of 2007 is that the humor is all in the business and nowhere in the lame story. The movie attempts to keep two subplots, cutting from one to the other for heightened dramatic effect. But neither is compelling individually, so the cross-cutting rhythms never capture you. It becomes a dreary "And then . . . " sort of storytelling, without any real suspense, risk or drama.

In the first subplot, Shrek (the voice of Michael Myers, sometimes with a Scottish burr, sometimes without) becomes king upon the death of the frog king of Far Far Away, as this mythical land, actually a subtext of Hollywood, is called. And guess what? He doesn't like it. He'd rather be in his stinky swamp luxuriating in solitude, mud and trouble-free sex with his wife, the Princess Fiona, a gal who used to look like Cameron Diaz (she still does the voice) but now looks like Shrek, who frankly ain't that eye-appealing.

Anyway, in the movie's best few minutes, a kind of a mise-en-scene that the '40s studio directors could bring off beautifully but is now a totally lost art, we shunt through several sequences in which Shrek's hugeness, strangeness, clumsiness and strength utterly betray him in the delicate requirements of court etiquette, and like a great comedian from the '10s and '20s, he destroys every event or object that comes his way. He's Stan and Ollie in one large green being. Confessing his ineptitude and unhappiness, he goes off in search of a kid named Arthur who is the real heir to the throne.

Meanwhile, the disgruntled Prince Charming, reduced to dinner theater, is plotting a coup to take over the kingdom. So for a while the movie cuts between Shrek's adventures at a parody of Beverly Hills High and the revolutionary politics of Far Far Away, which culminate in a very strange airborne invasion, by which Fiona and her court (all fairy tale princesses, played by comedian-hipsters Amy Sedaris, Maya Rudolph, Amy Poehler, Cheri Oteri and, um, Larry King), are captured and imprisoned.

Shrek and the new boy king -- Justin Timberlake, for crying out loud! -- return and run a counter-coup, which climaxes in (this is where it gets a little weird) a huge musical comedy number.

And here's the ridiculous part: It plays even dumber than it sounds.

Still, now and then the wit of the dialogue sparkles and the ironic use of rock music at key moments is clever. And continually pleasing is the sense of ironic play that informs the whole thing, the way it keeps lurching into parodies that most kids will miss, the way, like "Saturday Night Live," it plays over and over again on cliches of showbiz we all know and recognize. Then again, I like the idea of the "SNL" pretties playing the court princesses in the style of languid modern New Yorky gals, unexcitable, neurotic and wretchedly competitive.

A Shrek dream, in which the world is overrun by baby Shreks (also a movie critic's nightmare), is quite funny. But do Eddie Murphy and Antonio Banderas add much? Possibly the fact that they don't appear in this review until paragraph 13 gives you an idea.

I think I've used this line before, but I'm going to use it again, because if you care enough to steal, steal the very best. So I give you, from some diary of Ned Rorem: I liked everything about it except it.

Shrek the Third (92 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG for mild sexual innuendo, crude humor and mild action sequences.

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