In case you missed Happily N’Ever After, here’s your chance. True, few people saw it the first time, and true, it ripped off the whole fairy tale satire idea from Shrek (which in turn ripped off Rocky & Bullwinkle‘s “Fractured Fairy Tales,” which did everything first and better). But the villains rising up against their “loser” fates is looking awfully warmed over here. After all, the very Shrekness of Shrek (Mike Meyers) is the loser (the monster, the outcast, the grump) redeemed. This time, he must deny that good fortune to other losers, that is, losers who are not him.
Shrek the Third does make an effort to twist that idea up one more time, with a sorta heartfelt can’t-we-all-get-along finale worthy of Spider-Man 3 and spoken by Justin Timberlake, of all people, as the good prince Artie. Certainly, given the world we like to forget by seeing Shrekish fare, getting along with opponents rather than chasing “victory” probably sounds revolutionary. Not to worry though. Also as in Spider-Man 3, such sense-making comes late in the picture—after the usual journeying, grousing, come-backing, and ass-kicking.
The premise is Shrek’s Big Choice. Initially, he’s pleased enough to live in the castle with Fiona (Cameron Diaz) and pose as a munificent ruler of Far Far Away while her dad (John Cleese) is indisposed (when last seen, he was magic-spelled into a frog). But when word comes the gig might be permanent, he starts to miss his swamp and stench, and resent the powdered wigs and posing. (Granted, her family never had to do powdered wigs before the movie needed to make kingness odious.) His other option is to sail away to fetch Artie, which means another adventure, which means bringing on the sidekicks.
Thus the familiar plot is set in motion: attended by Donkey (Eddie Murphy) and Puss in Boots (Antonio Banderas), Shrek must entice someone royal to come along for a ride. When they find Artie, he’s not exactly noble or aggressive. Rather, he’s something of a nerd at high school, “busy not fitting in,” used to being abused and resentful too. Shrek makes all kinds of promises, Artie says okay, and then the truth outs: the kingdom is under siege, bodyguards and food tasters are in order, and oh yes, plague. Urk. Suddenly high school bullies look less odious.
As the travelers squabble and fret, they can’t know just how bad the uprising is getting back home. Prince Charming (Rupert Everett), still furious about what happened to mummy, rounds up a squad of losers even unhappier than he is. Captain Hook (Ian McShane), Rumplestiltskin, a Wicked Queen (Susan Blakeslee), and a crew of disgruntled enchanted trees band up to turn the once-happy kingdom into Bedford Falls Without George Bailey (miserable drunks, broken windows, crashed carriages). Facing imminent abuse by the sneery Charming, little Gingy the cookie, never renowned for his wit, comes up with the film’s representative put-down: no matter his ambition, the prince will never be more than “the king of stupids!” Coming from the terminally earnest Mr. Bill clone Gingy, the
assessment is accurate and painfully obvious. Such characterization would be the primary point about Gingy, a perennial dunderhead and butt of jokes about same, but sadly, it’s the point about the king who reigns over merchandise too.
It’s no surprise that a Shrek movie would be unoriginal. But this one is flaccid in particular ways, rerunning not only other movies’ plots, but other movies’ sight gags and sitcommy shortcuts as well. Consider the pack of princesses, encouraged by pregnant Fiona to rise up against the already rising-up losers, to declare their resistance. The transformation is achieved in a montage of clichés: vain Rapunzel (Maya Rudolph), narcoleptic Sleeping Beauty (Cheri Oteri), et. al., tear off their long sleeves, show tattoos, bust through stone walls and even burn a bra (really? what decade is this? And if the assembled SNL players all had a great time doing the baby shower scene, it’s not clear in the result). By the time Snow White (Amy Poehler) is exhorting woodland creatures to tackle the walking trees in order to retake the castle—all under Fergie’s anemic cover of “Barracuda”—all you can hope is that it will all be over soon.
In fact, such hope is unrealistic. Nothing looks to be ongoing so much as Shrek, except maybe the other sequel machines huffing and puffing this summer. But if it’s not original in that either, this franchise seems determined to be The Principal Lesson in What Not to Do. Much has already been made of Shrek’s schizophrenic pitching of children’s physical fitness alongside McDonald’s Happy Meals. With this installment—to be followed by Four as well as Sam Mendes’ Broadway musical and ABC’s “Christmas Special”—the brand is looking fatigued.