Now that he’s living happily ever after, Shrek (voiced by Mike Meyers) is thinking twice. Though his babies are beautiful and his wife Fiona (Cameron Diaz) still enticing, he’s tired of being everyone’s favorite ogre and frustrated by the routine of family life. The first few minutes of Shrek Forever After summarize these feelings neatly, in a montage of repeated scenes: Shrek diapers and feeds his farty, gurgly triplets, he shares play-dates with Donkey (Eddie Murphy) and his half-dragon kiddies. At the same time, he yearns for his long-lost previous life, when humans feared his roar and cute and furry creatures avoided his section of the woods. Most of all, he misses spending time alone — wallowing in mud baths, scaring all his neighbors, and drinking eyeball-tinis in the evenings.
Reportedly the last Shrek film, this one is all about laboring. Its set-up of the ogre’s midlife crisis indicates it’s less interested in entertaining kiddie viewers and their skeptical parents — the crowds who bought into the first film’s combination of splatty animated hijinks and inside-jokey asides — and more concerned with how hard it is to gin up a franchise that’s grown tired.
Assuming that Shrek and Donkey and Fiona are out of steam, this fourth installment turns to an ostensible gadfly, the wicked Rumpelstiltskin (Walt Dohrn), who is, conveniently, also unhappy with his lot. When he offers Shrek a chance to spend a day living his former life — before he rescued Fiona from the Dragon’s Keep, before his onerous routine was set in motion — the ogre signs a contract. Of course, he’s so miserable and stubbornly shortsighted that he doesn’t actually read that contract. And so, even as you see the trouble and betrayal coming, you also see that Shrek is also a stand-in for all those who feel duped and abused, who don’t do their homework because it’s too tedious, who seek fast fixes and resent responsibility. Yes, Shrek needs to grow up — he needs to get a job, as it were — but he’s constitutionally unfit for same. He’s an ogre, he’s mean, and he doesn’t do homework.
And so: Shrek trades away not just a day, but his entire life, on the planet just long enough to be granted a deadline, much like the ones he’s faced before. This leads to a scenario like the one in It’s a Wonderful Life, where George wanders through bleak streets, among people who never knew him because he’s never been born. In Shrek’s version of that plot, Rumpelstiltskin is Mr. Potter, ruling from on high in a big fancy palace, the Kingdom of Far Far Away crumbling around him with ogres subjected as slaves. Surrounded by witches who do his every bidding (some played by name-actors like Jane Lynch and Lake Bell, but none memorable in even the slightest way), Rumpelstiltskin aims to have Shrek live out his one day without discovering the exit clause — which again involves “true love’s kiss.”
That means Shrek has to meet Fiona, who like George’s Mary is now wholly unaware of his existence. Fiona has her own issues too, mainly that she is still cursed (living as a human by day and an ogre by night) and also leading an underground ogre resistance. The group is plainly passionate but so far, not quite clever enough to overthrow the tyrant Rumpelstiltskin. The only way Shrek can recover his old life, including his friendship with Donkey, his loving marriage, and his now non-existent children, is through that kiss. That is, he needs to convince Fiona, always at least a little wonderful, patient, and smart (and now awesomely Amazonian), to fall in love with him again.
Though it’s jumped on the 3D bandwagon, the fourth Shrek is almost surprisingly clunky and old. In the alterna-world, the usual heroes are all discontented and slow-thinking. Gingy (Conrad Vernon) is forced to fight other cookies in a Gladiator-style arena, Puss in Boots (Antonio Banderas) is fat and grumpy (apparently attending to Fiona’s domestic needs, though his job is not quite clear), and even Donkey is reduced to actual work, drawing a witches’ paddy-wagon and singing old pop songs at the crack of a whip. Only Fiona seems to have fond a worthy enterprise in this dark world, though she’s traumatized from her years with the dragon and prone to spending her own ogre-time alone, rehearsing attack schemes ninja-style.
Shrek’s own efforts to engage with his new reality (undertaken after much complaining) have him mounting a witch’s broom and zip-zapping about as if he’s in a quidditch tournament (again, not so original). His reunion with Fiona is inevitable, though it’s hard not to be wishing, for her sake, that maybe she’ll find her own alterna-world, where her work outside the home is better appreciated.