One month ahead of Pixar’s 3-D conclusion to the Toy Story trilogy, here is DreamWorks’ 3-D conclusion to the Shrek trilogy. Okay, technically it took DreamWorks four films to complete their Shrek trilogy. But I think we can agree that Shrek the Third was an unfortunate detour best forgotten, a failed “threequel” that lacked even the modicum of heart that ultimately held the first two films together.
Shrek Forever After is the sequel that should have followed Shrek 2. I don’t suppose they’ll be able to leave Shrek the Third out of the eventual boxed edition, but when Shrekkies (or is it Shrekkers?) sit down to watch the series, I bet the tendency will be to skip Shrek the Third.
Of course, I’m not really a Shrekker, so what do I know? What I can say is this: After three Shrek films aimed squarely at adolescents, I’m mildly surprised to find that DreamWorks has made a final chapter aimed more or less at middle-aged men, and specifically husbands and fathers. You know, undemanding middle-aged men going to a Shrek movie. But still.
Perhaps it’s the waning influence of Andrew Adamson (who directed the first two Shrek films and wrote the story for Shrek the Third, but takes an executive producer credit here). Perhaps it’s new director Mike Mitchell (Sky High) or writers Josh Klausner and Darren Lemke. (Dig deep enough into the long list of Shrek the Third writers, and you’ll eventually find Klausner’s name, but it seems likely his involvement was minimal.)
Whatever the reason, where the previous films subverted fairy-tale tropes and archetypes, Shrek Forever After pokes at, but ultimately affirms, the classic fairy-tale ending: the “happily ever after.” The constant stream of pop-culture references has slowed to a trickle (mostly just musical references to the Carpenters, the Beastie Boys and so on).
There’s still conspicuous bathroom humor, but much of it comes from the trio of ogrets on Papa Shrek’s lap, and the rest involves Shrek’s inability to get a moment to himself in the outhouse, let alone enjoy a mud bath. If it isn’t Fiona reminding him about the clogged, uh, outhouse, it’s a daily tour bus full of gawkers clamoring to see the ogre, now a minor celebrity rather than a fearful menace in the swamp. A montage of monotony sums up the routine of Shrek’s life: Clearly, he isn’t the fairy-tale monster he used to be.
In a word, Shrek (Mike Myers) has been domesticated — and the loss of his ogriety is sinking in. As with many movie midlife crises, Shrek’s slow burn comes to a head at a birthday party, where, among other irritants, a crab-faced young fan and his unctuous father badger Shrek to do his famous ogre roar, leading to an unexpected comeuppance that’s among the film’s best gags.
“You have three beautiful children,” Fiona (Cameron Diaz) tells Shrek, “a wife who loves you, and friends who adore you. You have everything. Why is it that the only person who can’t see that is you?”
It’s a familiar theme, and in Shrek Forever After, it picks up even more familiar resonances, above all from It’s a Wonderful Life, with Grimm Brothers’ heavy Rumpelstiltskin (Walt Dohrn) as Clarence and Mr. Potter in one. An opening flashback invests a key event from the first film with added significance: Desperate to save their imprisoned and bewitched daughter, Fiona’s royal parents were ready to sign over the kingdom of Far Far Away to Rumpelstiltskin, but Shrek saved her in the nick of time.
So Rumpel, or Stiltskin, or whatever they’re calling him for short, has reason to resent Shrek’s very existence … and when he overhears Shrek lamenting the good old days when he was free and feared, the evil dwarf sees a chance to do one of his famous deals. What he offers Shrek is a day of playing hookey from domestication; what he gets in return is a world without Shrek.
And so our hero finds himself in the Shrekverse version of Pottersville, a Rumpelstiltskin regime that makes Farquaad look like Old King Cole. Marauding witches are everywhere, ogres have been driven underground, and you don’t want to know what’s become of Donkey (Eddie Murphy), (shudder) Puss in Boots (Antonio Banderas) or the Gingerbread Man (Conrad Vernon). The horror! (Seriously, parents take note, this alternate Far Far Away could be more upsetting for younger Shrekkies than anything in the earlier films.)
Before you can say “Zuzu’s petals,” Shrek is staring in horror at the rag doll in his pocket, trying to figure out what’s happened to his life — and how to get it back. That’s when he discovers what’s happened to Fiona. Without giving it away, suffice to say she isn’t a demure old maid working at the library.
Here things get lazy. Shrek Forever After suggests that if not for Shrek, Fiona would have languished in her tower till who knows when. What about Prince Charming? Didn’t Shrek 2 establish that Shrek had just beaten him to the punch? In the end, Shrek plays a magical “get out of jail free” card in what is surely not the best way it could have been played. (Why not just wish to get back what Rumpelstiltskin stole from him?)
Shrek’s interactions with Fiona prime go through the obvious motions, only occasionally displaying heart or cleverness. It’s an opportunity for Shrek and Fiona to fall in love again, but for the most part it’s pretty flat.
There are a couple of good moments. Shrek gets in a decent speech in which he tries to convince Fiona that he knows all about her. But when he tries to tell Fiona that he’s her true love, she turns wounded eyes on him and asks plaintively, “Then why weren’t you there when I needed you?” Shrek’s final line, summing up the moral, is as corny as it is sweet, and I admit there was a tear in this middle-aged man’s eye.
It won’t make any new Shrekkies (Shrekkers?), but Shrek Forever After should satisfy fans of the first two entries, especially those smarting from the third film. Let’s just hope DreamWorks is serious about this being the final chapter. At some point, happily ever afters should be left well enough alone.
Content advisory: Mild crude humor and innuendo; mild animated action and battle scenes; scenes of imprisoned or enslaved characters that could be upsetting to young viewers. Might be okay for older kids.