When Shrek stomped out of his hovel and burst onto the screen in 2001, he wowed audiences with biting satire directed at Disney fairytale clichés and hilarious, character driven humor. When Shrek 2 came around, it was slightly lighter on satire but bigger on fun action set pieces and spectacle. Shrek ends with a beautiful scene in which Fiona magically transforms into her true self. Shrek 2 ends with a hilarious, massive battle in which a Godzilla-sized gingerbread man attacks a castle and a magical fairy godmother is defeated in the midst of singing a big musical number. Shrek the Third ends with a long-winded speech on the importance of being yourself, from a newly introduced character no one cares about. To say the third movie is a letdown is kind of an understatement.
The problem is, Shrek the Third doesn’t take its own advice. It isn’t itself. The first two movies were family films with an adult edge. This third one is a watered down kids’ movie through and through, and the script plays out like something written for one of those assembly line produced direct-to-DVD sequels Disney is fond of releasing to fill up Wal-Mart bargain bins. Except this isn’t Disney, this is the franchise that makes fun of Disney for doing things exactly like that. Instead of sticking to what made it great, Shrek has become a part of the homogenized mediocrity it was railing against in the first place.
The story starts out where you’d expect it to, with Shrek stuck in his in-laws castle and itching to get back to the swamp. His plan to return home with Fiona is waylaid when his father-in-law the frog king of Far Far Away dies, removing the voice of John Cleese from the film early and thus depriving Shrek the Third of his comedic genius. That’s alright since later in the film his void is filled by Eric Idle as the wizard Merlin. I guess at any given time you can only have one Python.
With the king dead, Shrek is now heir to the throne by marriage. Shrek wants his rat-infested swamp, not a golden crown, so he grabs his traveling companions Donkey and Puss and sets off on a journey to find a back-up heir named Arthur. While he’s gone, a mixed collection of poorly defined fairytale bad guys invade the kingdom and conquer it easily, because the country’s entire standing army consists of a wolf in a nightgown, a gingerbread man, and three little pigs. Fiona is there with a group of spoiled princesses, but apparently she’s forgotten all the Matrixy kung fu she did in the previous two movies because she runs and hides in a closet instead of kicking bad guys in the head. When he gets back, Shrek is easily captured by a few newly hired guards who point sticks at him. That’s right, Shrek is captured by a couple of random guys with pikes. Shrek, the giant green ogre who we’ve watched single-handedly defeat entire armies with his bare fists, surrenders to a handful of generic soldiers led by pretty-boy Prince Charming without even putting up a fight. Who is this fat, useless, green guy and what the heck has DreamWorks done with our big, brutish, badass ogre?
Shrek’s inexplicably easy capture is symptomatic of the entire film, which seems to go out of its way to avoid letting anything exciting happen, even when it doesn’t’ make sense. Don’t get me wrong, Shrek the Third has a couple of moments here and there. They couldn’t kill it entirely and there are one or two genuinely creative and funny laughs, the best of which comes again from the underused gingerbread man. But gags like that are less common than they should be in the movie, which does nearly as good a job of letting the air out of its jokes as it does suffocating the action. The complex adult humor and relevant pop culture references they layered into the previous two films shows up only occasionally, like a shadow of the past.
Visually the film is still beautiful. They’ve definitely upgraded the look, and it’s almost eerie the way Shrek has slowly morphed over the past two movies to look more like Mike Myers. They’ve given the film a strange, slightly dreamlike quality this time, but the textures they use are a little more sharply defined. It still doesn’t look real of course, and I still prefer the look of a good Pixar movie, but Shrek 3 could be breathtaking to watch in its own way. Or it would be if they had any decent set pieces in the movie. Since the finale is basically a speech, there’s no stunning visual sequence to wow you with at the end and before that it’s mostly a lot of walking around on unimpressive, generic medieval terrain. The movie looks good, but if they’re just going to show us a few walls and an occasional Starbucks storefront parody, then I’m not sure it was worth all the trouble.
Maybe it was setting the bar too high to expect Shrek to keep up a full head of steam through three movies. Whatever you think of this one, there’s no denying that this series is running out of swamp gas fast. Even the great comedic energy of supporting characters like Donkey and Puss n’ Boots is negated by the script, which goes out of its way to neutralize their effectiveness. It’s as if someone set out to write a movie that would kill the franchise. That’s impossible of course, but you’d think someone, somewhere at DreamWorks should have seen what a giant step down this movie was long before it went into production. The script, which had more writers than I care to list, is flat out terrible and no amount of great vocal talent or wonderful animation was going to save it. It’s time for us to leave Shrek alone and let him retire to the swamp. I doubt he’ll mind, it’s what he’s always wanted.