Friday, June 04, 2010

'Shrek Forever After' is thin, but still fun

Nearly a decade has passed since the first “Shrek” came out. It became the first film to win an Academy Award in the newly formed Best Animated Feature category — and for good reason, too. It was sharp, uproariously funny, imaginative and even at times tender. Now we have “Shrek Forever After,” the fourth installment of the series, and franchise fatigue is settling in.

This latest “Shrek” isn't bad, but at this point it is no longer fresh. The first film was a sly satire on fairy tale characters and of Disney's often sanitized versions of these dark tales. But now, four films into the series, the satirical world is accepted as its own universe and the lampooning is substantially duller. The first two films were consistently laugh-out-loud funny. Those moments of laughter are far fewer.

As the film opens, Shrek (Mike Myers), now a father of three, has become bored with family life and is yearning for the days when he was feared ogre. Enter Rumpelstiltskin (Walk Dohrn) who offers Shrek one day in his old life. Naturally, there is a tricky catch that thrusts Shrek into an alternate universe where he never existed and Rumpelstiltskin is tyrannical dictator. Shrek has
24 hours to figure out how to fix it or he'll cease to exist.

Yes, it is the old “It's a Wonderful Life” routine and while it is hardly an original twist, it does offer some unexpected moments. The opening scenes with Shrek and his family show how stale this franchise had become, so at least the alternate world offers some variation.

In this world Fiona (Cameron Diaz) is the hardened leader of the ogre resistance against Rumpelstiltskin. She wants nothing to do with Shrek and he must court her all over again. Some things never change, though, and Donkey (Eddie Murphy) almost instantly becomes Shrek's best friend again.

The funniest thing about this alternate world, and the film overall, is that Puss in Boots (Antonio Banderas), now Fiona's pet, has become pampered and fat. This leads to several great visual and verbal gags. Banderas' Puss in Boots is easily the best thing in the franchise at this point. This is supposedly the last in the series, but a Puss in Boots spin-off seems like a viable and worthy way to keep this money train moving forward.

Overall, the voice work remains solid. Myers is actually giving a genuine performance that makes the tired you-don't-know-what-you-have-until-you-lose-it theme work far better than it should. Murphy is still funny as Donkey, although he is let down by writers Josh Klausner and Darren Lemke who play the card that Donkey likes to sing far too much.

Diaz gets to have some fun being the tough leader type who is slowly softened by Shrek. Craig Robinson is nice new addition as the resistance's chef. He scores a few very big laughs.

The animation remains as impressive as ever, but on one occasion it is almost too good. There's a moment early in the film in which horses pulling a carriage look completely real. That level of realism is distracting, but it is an isolated moment. Mostly the film remains a bright, colorful universe.

Although this installment is not nearly as funny as its predecessors, a sincerity and tenderness that were always in the background have moved to the fore. Over time we have garnered a lot of affection toward Shrek, Donkey, Fiona and Puss in Boots, and that goodwill goes along way to keeping “Forever After” watchable.

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