At any moment in any screening of "Shrek 2," you could turn off the projector and hand out cards that asked a simple question:
What is this movie about?
Here's what you'd get in return: Ninety percent of the cards would be blank. Of the remaining 10 percent, no card would agree with any other card.
That's the dreary reality of this sequel to the wondrous "Shrek" of three years ago: a piecemeal plot that seems to go nowhere and be about nothing and wind up no place, somewhat effectively camouflaged by a number of intriguing but incidental bits.
Oh, it looks great. The pixies of pixelism at DreamWorks Animation know their stuff and can conjure up anything imaginable. The forms of the creatures are sinuous and convincing, their movements dynamic and frequently witty. The landscapes boast that eerie blend of the mythically resonant and palpable, as if distilled from N.C. Wyeth's id. The dwellings and urban landscapes are devilishly clever. The new breakthrough seems to be skin blemishes and whiskers, because the beings, human and mythic, have conspicuously reality-TV skin instead of that dead luster that seems endemic to the computer-generated world. So yes, Mr. and Mrs. America, in accordance with your wishes, the geniuses at DreamWorks can now give you animated acne!
The story -- hmm, well, let's see, where to begin, how to proceed, where to end? Since the filmmakers botched all of these, why should anyone expect me to be able to bring this off? As best as I can figure out, there is no overarching, overall, ultimately satisfying story in the global sense. There's certainly nothing like the quest-structure of redemption through rescue that energized the first film, to say nothing of 7,908,987,098,765,887 or so stories before it. Rather, throughout, "Shrek 2's" plot patterns are engineered along a single model, the arbitrary emplacement of a minor obstacle to be overcome in about a 10-minute sequence. At that point, equally arbitrarily, a new minor obstacle is created, then overcome in 10 more minutes, and so forth for 90 minutes or so. When you get there, there's no there there, and there never was a there there, so you wonder: Why did we just go there?
The movie is at least a pure sequel, following immediately upon the completion of what preceded it. It seems that upon waking up on the first night of their honeymoon, our favorite ogres, the just-married Mr. and Mrs. Shrek -- the former Princess Fiona, voiced in a lackluster performance by Cameron Diaz -- are invited -- commanded, that is, by royal decree -- to go to her parents' castle in Far Far Away Land for a wedding ball in their honor. The royal parents (the voices belong to John Cleese, unrecognizable, and Julie Andrews, so recognizable you wait for her to burst into "The Sound of Music," which, incidentally, would have been preferable to any of the tunes the movie itself offers) are horrified to discover that their new son-in-law is 12 feet tall, green and has trumpets for ears. Even worse is that so does their daughter.
At this point the movie takes a very strange twist, then pretty much forgets about it. The king -- an unseemly little man with a weak, weaselly face -- hires a professional assassin to kill Shrek. Yukkk! Isn't this a little much for what is essentially a fairy tale for children? Need we segue into Greek tragedy with a gambit so intense and violent?
Well, evidently the storytellers -- three are listed on the screenplay, under the direction of three more directors, for a total of six -- were frightened of what they had wrought as well, and after playing with that one for the allotted 10 minutes, they jettison it altogether and the killer -- Puss-in-Boots (the voice of Antonio Banderas) -- joins Shrek (the voice of Mike Myers) and the Donkey (likewise Eddie Murphy) and the two caballeros become three amigos. But why? Literally I don't know; the insertion of the third member into the previous twosome adds nothing and really just gets in the way of the amusing chemistry between Murphy and Myers. It also turns out that while Myers and particularly Murphy are terrific vocal performers, Banderas isn't. Too frequently you cannot understand him, and there's no real impulse to do so because his interaction with the story is so tenuous to begin with.
Finally, at about the 40-minute mark, what seems to be a plot begins to emerge: It seems that an evil Fairy Godmother wants her vain, worthless, peacock of a son Prince Charming to marry Princess Fiona and she's the one who accelerates the plot against Shrek, which has its climax at that fancy ball.
None of this is particularly engaging and the Fairy Godmother (voiced by Jennifer Saunders) is the only compelling figure in the film because she's the only one doing something direct; the others are quite passive, reacting (barely) to her initiatives.
What does engage are the riffs, which makes a good point about the nature of commercial storytelling. In fact "Shrek 2" is almost a clinical study of storytelling tendencies. In this, as in all concoctions meant to delight, provoke, entertain, fascinate or whatever, basically two aspects of a good story come into play. One I'd call global: It's the central dramatic situation, the arc of story, in which one makes an emotional investment. That's the key in most stories, but here it's way underdeveloped.
What's overdeveloped is the second aspect, which I call local. It's better known as the business. You know, the riffs, the things, the conceits, the styles, if you will. And at this lesser enterprise, "Shrek 2" shines. Its most elaborate and amusing conceit sees Far Far Away Land as an elaborate metaphorized version of Hollywood, complete with the palms, the mansions (with fairy-tale heroes and heroines as "stars"), the fast-food joints, the famous sign spilling across the green hills (fiction: the hills aren't normally green but a kind of thatchy brown the color of a cicada's thorax). The "dress ball," to continue the visual merriment, is seen as a kind of Oscar ceremony, with amusing coach-limo vehicles delivering the celebs to a red carpet as a Joan Rivers type dishes their outfits.
That's extremely enjoyable for its pure wit and energy, and somehow as clever as it is, it's not enough. One wishes the same wit and energy had gone into the story. That's "Shrek 2" in a nutshell -- very pretty to look at, very hard to care for.
Shrek 2 (94 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG and contains nothing really objectionable, though there is some crude humor and suggestive content.