The Shrek series has now become sort of an odd beast. It’s a series of movies that gets its kicks through ripping into the conventions of fairy tales and other animated features. But with Shrek the Third the creative team has started to fall back on the very conventions that they once used to make fun of apart for our amusement. Rather than taking a more standard kids story plot and turning it on its ear (which is what was done the first two times) it feels like this second sequel was done for money only. Same characters doing the exact same stuff just in a different setting (Shrek’s at a highschool!)
The makers of Shrek the Third assumed that our love of these characters would mean that they just have to be there for us to have fun. As a result many of the characters really aren’t given much to do, and that includes some of the main characters as well. For example Donkey (Eddie Murphy) and Puss in Boots (Antonio Banderas) seem to only be along for the ride and are given little to do other than bicker with each other (which played well the last time but is starting to feel stale here). Some of the newer characters fair a bit better. In fact most of the best material deals with characters either completely new to the franchise (Merlin) or who were just cameos before (Snow White, Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella). That is a bad sign when the returning characters consistantly get fewer and less intense laughs than the new ones.
As for plot the movie starts off promisingly enough with one of the funniest death bed scenes in quite some time. Fiona’s frog father (John Cleese) announces just before croaking that Shrek (Mike Myers) is next in line for the throne unless he can find the only remaining heir: Arthur (voiced by Justin Timberlake.) True to form Shrek wants as little to do with the high society of royalty as possible and just wants to get himself and his wife Fiona (Cameron Diaz) back to their swamp. So off he goes with Donkey and Puss in tow to find the young king. The kicker, though, is just as they depart Fiona informs Shrek that she’s pregnant. This gives Shrek extra cause to be in his trademark foul mood while he tries to cope with the prospect of being a parent (which does result in one rather amusing nightmare sequence.) When Shrek finds young Arthur (called Artie) it turns out that he is the school loser who even the nerds pick on. To make things worse once Artie figures out what Shrek is trying to get him into he’s not very keen on taking over throne. Meanwhile back at home, Prince Charming (Rupert Everett) has gathered up an army of fairy tale villains (pretty much all the characters we saw in the Poison Apple bar in the last movie) to stage a hostile take over of Far Far Away. Naturally Shrek has a to hurry back to save the day and convince Arthur to take the crown all at once.
If Shrek the Third has a rather straight forward plot for this normally off kilter series. It does seem that the writers are starting to run out of steam and out of ideas. The first movie in the series was able to skewer the classic heroic quest. Shrek 2 toyed with the notion that “happily ever after” isn’t as easy as it first appears. Both of these are fairly classic notions that the writers were able to tinker with and skewer. But this time around they don’t have any big ideas to play and mess around with so instead they just go the obvious next step of introducing a baby and just throw in a mini road trip for good measure. While the previous sequel really felt like that makers had more to say this one very much feels like it’s just a case of trying to maintain a profitable franchise.
That’s not to imply that there are no laughs left in this series, when it sticks to what made the first two work it still plays very fresh. In particular the baby shower scene that Fiona has with the other princesses and then later on when the princesses decide to do more than just wait to be rescued are scenes that give consistent and well planned laughs. Eric Idle’s performance as the manic Merlin is also good for some belly laughs. Most of the other gags will elicit a chuckle but that’s not much when compared to the on-target humor of the first two films (it doesn’t help that they tend to milk a few too many jokes from the earlier movies too.) The series isn’t dead yet but with the path it seems to be going down it may be better to wait for future Shrek sequels on DVD rather than rushing to the theater. The early word on the newly released Shrek Forever After is that it’s an improvement on this somewhat tired entry, but that wouldn’t be all that difficult.
Final Score: 2 out of 5