Sometime over the course of three sequels, the Shrek franchise stopped being a parody of super-saccharine kids' movies and became one itself. I place that moment around the middle of 2004's Shrek 2, when Puss in Boots first shows up, making a play for Donkey's spot as the ogre's annoying sidekick.
What started as an occasionally hilarious and sharp satire of Walt Disney (the animated features, the corporation's front office, the trusted trademark) in the first Shrek from 2001 had become repetitive and critically unfunny by 2007's Shrek the Third. Justin Timberlake as a picked-on boy-king? A scatterbrained Merlin? And don't even get me started on Shrek and Fiona's new triplets.
So it's probably a good thing the gang (Mike Myers, Eddie Murphy, Cameron Diaz, Antonio Banderas — they're all back) is calling it quits after Shrek Forever After (in 3-D, of course). This time, Shrek (Myers) thinks he's lost what it takes to be a big, bad ogre. So he makes a deal that goes horribly wrong and ends up in an alternate Far Far Away (what is this, Lost?) where he's never met Fiona and ogres are hunted by villagers ruled by the evil Rumpelstiltskin.
At the start of Shrek Forever After, the once-fearful ogre's life has become an endless series of diaper-changing, play dates, and household chores. He actually pines for the days when there was a reward for his big green head. "You used to be so fierce," autograph-seeking villagers tell him. After a particularly hectic birthday party for his three kids at a medieval Chuck E. Cheese, it dawns on Shrek that he's become a "jolly green joke."
He signs a contract with the diminutive and weaselly Rumpelstiltskin (expertly voiced by Walt Dohrn, a behind-the-scenes guy at DreamWorks Animation) to trade a day from his childhood for a chance to be a real ogre again. But the deal sends Shrek to a Far Far Away where Fiona leads a revolution, Donkey pulls carts, and Puss is a fat and pampered pet.
It's a welcome twist on the series, which was sputtering by Shrek the Third. But the whole alternate-universe plot isn't a very inspired one; it's merely a device to throw all the usual characters into new situations without resorting to the last two movies' wheel-spinning. And while on the surface the 3-D seems like one last opportunity to make a killing with the big ogre, it really sparks the adventure.
Thankfully, there aren't as many pop-culture references shoehorned into the script (though there are still plenty of obtrusive pop songs, which are going to seriously date the Shrek movies in the long run). And it's nice to see the familiar faces — Pinocchio, Gingy, the Three Pigs — doing something a bit different. There's more life in Shrek Forever After than there was last time, but the fairy tale ended a while ago for the series. At least it's going out with a little heart, a fighting spirit, and, best of all, having some fun.
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