Final chapters to a franchise are a very tricky thing. They have to tie everything together from before, send beloved characters out on a high note – and if the franchise has lost its luster, the ending has to avoid making it worse. Recently, a final chapter came out with decidedly mixed reviews, wrapping up with an alternate universe, a main character learning to let go of the past, and with everyone reuniting for a happy, sappy ending anyway. But unlike the Lost finale, Shrek Forever After gets these results with an ogre, IMAX 3D, and Rumpelstiltskin instead of an island and a flash-sideways.
Family life has made Shrek a neutered ogre, who begins to wish things turned out differently. But he isn’t the only one, as evil trickster Rumpelstiltskin would have gotten control of Far Far Away if Shrek hadn’t saved Fiona in time. Yet after Shrek’s frustration boils over, Rumpel gets his chance, and convinces Shrek to sign a contract in which he’ll be a real ogre again for a day. But that deal sends Shrek to a world in which he was never born, and Rumpel is an all-powerful, ogre hunting king with an army of witches. The only hope is for Shrek to share true love’s kiss with Fiona again – but since Fiona is a resistance leader with no time for true love, it might be even more difficult than the first time.
Shrek Forever After comes after the series resorted to babies to keep the franchise alive. Now it moves on to another staple for sagas that are out of ideas – the “It’s A Wonderful Life” homage. When the saga started, Shrek was regarded as a rebel who shook up the fairy tale and animated formula. But in Shrek Forever After, he’s just another George Bailey.
The main complaint by critics is that Shrek has gone soft, and that is his main complaint in the movie. After satirizing fairy tales, it seems like the film is out to satirize itself and poke light at its main problem. However, this early section is less satirical and more clichéd, and perhaps takes itself too seriously to be funny. Some laughs come from an annoying fat kid at a birthday party, but Shrek Forever After is otherwise a chore at the early going.
Once Rumpel’s deal kicks in, Shrek Forever After has some brief fun with Shrek being a feared creature again. But all the satirical possibilities go by the wayside when he discovers the new Far Far Away, and has to realize how good he had it. To help, the movie introduces a whole ogre community for the first time – but that’s not a blessing when it wastes the likes of Jon Hamm, Jane Lynch and Craig Robinson all at once.
However, Shrek Forever After almost manages, in spite of itself, to recover from its flaws and unoriginality. The movie goes back to having Shrek and Fiona fall in love again, and makes Fiona into more of a warrior ogre than ever. With a new take on this old love story, the film nearly finds the heart that it had in the beginning. Of course, the first movies balanced heart and laugh-out-loud antics, and there is more of an imbalance this time. Yet by this point in the series, one has to take whatever victory they can get.
Shrek and Fiona’s reconnection helps perk up the second half, with Donkey and Puss adding their invaluable contributions. In many ways, it is too little, too late to save the franchise, whose glory days are probably gone, just like Shrek himself. But in the end, Shrek Forever After still salvages a bit of dignity, and gets a good sendoff out of this – just barely. However, it is clear that they cannot push their luck one more time, as they won’t get this fortunate again.
When the Shrek series started, Mike Myers was a comedy icon that could do little wrong. As the franchise ends – at least in this incarnation – Myers, like Shrek, has lost quite a bit of luster lately. Since Shrek isn’t his old self, that doesn’t leave Myers with much new to work with either, but he’s done far worse recently. Eddie Murphy and Donkey still have the occasional spark of life, yet they too have to struggle with an aging routine. Antonio Banderas and Puss are still priceless, although they’re basically reduced to an extended cameo of fat jokes. Cameron Diaz and Fiona at least have something different to play with, as the new Fiona helps salvage the second half of the movie. For Rumpelstiltskin, DreamWorks actually resisted using a big name, and went in house with story head Walt Dohrn instead. Rumpel ranges from annoying to genuinely creepy at any given time, yet he does provide the fresh spark that the movie needs.
Shrek Forever After looks and feels like a last goodbye, and it should probably stay that way. The first two movies set the bar too high, since at this point, getting brief moments of the old humor and heart is the best they can do. Because they needed luck to do that, they should quit while they’re barely ahead. In spite of various mistakes, Shrek Forever After allows us to say a fond goodbye to these characters – and make us hope that for their sake, it is the last happily ever after.