The last movie in the green-ogre franchise, Shrek the Third, was widely panned for failing to capture the magic of the colorful characters created by DreamWorks that had won an Academy Award the first time around. And that was nearly a decade ago.
The new installment, Shrek Forever After (also alternately titled in the press notes as Shrek the Final Chapter and Shrek 4), not only captures the magic of the first movie, it re-creates it. It's almost as if the first Shrek is simply being re-imagined because they ran out of ideas.
Shrek the Third was a bit of a downer because it was all about growing up, increased responsibility and growing away from good friends. Shrek is a dad, he's a king and doesn't really want to be, and he doesn't have time to hang out with his pals. Ultimately, he gives up the kingdom and heads back to the swamp. What could possibly follow?
Well, someone at DreamWorks must have caught a holiday viewing of It's a Wonderful Life and thought "What if Shrek didn't exist?"
They turned the angel into a creepy little devil named Rumpelstiltskin and showed how Shrek was tricked into abandoning his life as it is now. Then Shrek begins to realize how good he really had it all along.
Rumpelstiltskin (who is voiced by Walter Dohrn, the animator who created him) tricks Shrek into trading a day of his past for a day where he can once again be the feared and ferocious ogre he once was. The problem is that Rumpel has traded the day of Shrek's birth, which means that the world that Shrek now finds himself in is one where he never existed. That, of course, means that Princess Fiona was never captured, he never meets Donkey or Puss in Boots, and everything can happen all over again. And guess what? It does.
The trouble is, we've seen all this happen before. We've seen Fiona and Shrek hate each other and then fall in love. We've seen Donkey be irritating and then become friends with Shrek (although this time it's Shrek who pursues the friendship, not Donkey). And the trouble is, just like love itself, it's not as wonderful as the first time.
All of the main voices are back: Mike Myers as Shrek, Cameron Diaz as Fiona, Eddie Murphy as Donkey and Antonio Banderas as Puss in Boots. They all have their usual funny banter, with Murphy's ad-libs bordering on some adult double-entendres as usual. But there are many more characters thrown in that just get short-shrifted.
There's Ryan Seacrest as the father of an obnoxious kid who keeps croaking out "Do the roar!" to Shrek. (That kid, by the way, is modeled after a creepy kid, Froggy, in the old Little Rascals series.) There's Larry King and Regis Philbin reprising their few lines as ugly stepsisters and Julie Andrews and John Cleese again as the Queen and King, but you could blink and miss them.
And, when you can't distinguish someone as kooky as Kathy Griffin as one of the witches, then that's just a misuse of talent. Another one of the witch voices is a tribute to baby boomers because it's Billie Hayes, who was Witchie-Poo on H.R. Pufnstuf. (She's the Cackling Witch.)
In the alternate world, Fiona is a butch fighting warrior among an underground rogue band of ogres that include Brogan (John Hamm from Mad Men) and Cookie (Craig Robinson from The Office). Director Mike Mitchell has said that in the original script there was a subplot that had Brogan making a play for Fiona, but this was scrapped because audiences would want to see her hook up with the handsome ogre voiced by Hamm rather than schlubby Shrek. So Brogan's role is emasculated, and you sort of wonder why he's there at all, except someone thought "What a cool idea, to put someone from Mad Men in the animated world of Shrek."
Unfortunately, the character most emasculated is Puss in Boots, who looks like he's been fixed. He's first shown in the alternate reality as a fat and sassy pampered kitty who exemplifies the first part of his name. It's very sad.
There are some memorable moments. When Donkey has a sparring match with the Gingerbread Man, he shoots off, "Whatchyou talkin' about, cracker?" In the witch's trailer park, a transvestite witch makes eyes and waves at the King. And every once in a while, a familiar 1970s tune comes in just at the right moment to make the parents laugh nostalgically.
But this is a world that isn't reality, and it's very clear that Shrek won't be stuck in this world forever and that somehow he's going to get back to his real world. (Sorry if I've ruined for you, but really, is that a surprise?)
Now, on another positive note, the teen kids and grade-schoolers at the screening that I talked to afterward all loved the movie and think it's just as good (and even better) than the first Shrek. They loved the old familiar characters, and they loved the new characters introduced in this final installment.
But, they all agree they're more excited about seeing a future Puss in Boots spinoff rather than another Shrek movie.