Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.
If you live in the real world, you may not know that a Guardian article on the subject of the 20th anniversary of the release of Shrek caused a little controversy, as author Scott Tobias logged a few reservations about the film’s beloved status. Pushback ensued. So did pushback against the idea of having discourse about Shrek at all.
But why shouldn’t we have Shrek discourse? Have something to say and proceed, says I. As for my own Shrekery, I couldn’t find my review of the first one, but my pieces on the sequels (all published in The Herald on the day the movies opened) make my position clear. So here’s that.
How did I miss the “Shrek” gene?
Somehow the ability to love this movie franchise has eluded me. Millions of children and adults, gifted with the proper green genetic material, disagree.
The first “Shrek” was, no doubt about it, a very clever film, with brilliant computer animation. It also had some terrific vocal performances, especially Eddie Murphy’s, and funny Hollywood in-jokes aimed at Disney. The overriding spirit was satirical, as the movie (based on a book by William Steig) debunked the various conventions of fairy tales. All well and good, but it was also a little jokey and slick.
A billion dollars later, here’s “Shrek 2.” It loses gas from the first go-round, since there are fewer fairy-tale targets to hit this time. It is technically very well made, made me laugh a few times, and I basically didn’t connect with it. Therefore it should be huge.
The plot this time is more of a sitcom affair. Shrek (voice Mike Myers, keeping his Scots accent), a cranky green ogre, has married his true love Fiona (Cameron Diaz), who, at the end of “Shrek,” changed from a beautiful fairy princess into a green-skinned ogre-like (and happy) lady. The big issue here is that Fiona’s royal parents (Julie Andrews and John Cleese) invite the happy couple to visit their castle in Far Far Away. Of course they don’t know their daughter’s new husband is a real ogre.
So there’s a bit of “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” when the Shreks hit town. Naturally, they are accompanied by Donkey (Eddie Murphy), Shrek’s insecure and talkative sidekick.
New to the proceedings is Puss-in-Boots (Antonio Banderas), a swashbuckling kitty with a lethal rapier. But he turns out to be a pussycat. He also turns out to be the best new thing about the sequel, partly because of Banderas’ witty vocalizing. Other new characters include a nasty fairy godmother (Jennifer Saunders) and a prince Charming (Rupert Everett) utterly lacking in charm.
The script has lots of anachronisms, a parody of “Cops,” and jokes about Pinocchio wearing women’s underwear. There are references to “Rawhide” and “Hawaii 5-O.” Pop songs like “Livin’ La Vida Loca” and “Funkytown” litter the soundtrack, eliciting an immediate audience response.
This is the kind of stuff that bugged me a little about the first “Shrek.” It’s like sitting down to watch a classic Disney cartoon and finding out that Robin Williams will be re-interpreting it. It’s flabbier than the original film, with fewer laughs, and the sense of discovery is gone. And with that, I cease my ogre-like grousing and surrender: go out and enjoy this movie anyway.
Shrek the Third
The summer of sequels, which kicked off with the staggering box-office opening of “Spider-Man 3,” continues this week with “Shrek the Third.” Don’t worry, “Pirates of the Caribbean 3” is coming next week.
“Shrek the Third” extends the smash franchise about the big green ogre, which began with the Oscar-winning 2002 original and topped itself with the 2004 sequel. This new one gets off to a great start—I thought the first half was as funny as anything in the previous movies—but limps toward the finish line.
You will recall that Shrek, the smelly, ear-waxy ogre voiced by a Scottish-inflected Mike Myers, has happily married the similarly homely Fiona (Cameron Diaz) and been acclaimed, reluctantly, as the next king of Far Far Away. The plot of “Shrek the Third” has the green guy setting off in search of another heir to the crown, Arthur (Justin Timberlake). Needless to say, constant companions Donkey (Eddie Murphy) and Puss in Boots (Antonio Banderas) tag along.
Bad things happen during Shrek’s absence, as the spurned Prince Charming (Rupert Everett, giving the funniest vocal performance) returns to Far Far Away and wreaks havoc.
Frankly, the returning characters have grown a little stale, and there isn’t much to do for Shrek and Fiona. The best stuff involves new wrinkles, such as Merlin the Magician (Monty Python’s Eric Idle in good form), whose wobbly powers result in a personality mix-up between two major characters.
I also liked Fiona’s new posse of fair maidens, including Rapunzel (Maya Rudolph), Cinderella (Amy Sedaris), and Snow White (Amy Poehler). They flip the usual damsel-in-distress thing on its head, much in the spirit of the “Shrek” series. I must say the sight and sound of Snow White warbling sweetly and then bursting out into Led Zeppelin’s ominous “Immigrant Song” is one of the kookier things I’ve seen lately.
I’ve never liked the “Shrek” movies’ reliance of baby-boomer music cues, and I’m still puzzling over the way Paul McCartney’s “Live and Let Die” pops up in this one. As usual, the anachronistic gags abound, especially when Shrek visits a medieval high school that resembles a suburban mall.
The computer animation is technically amazing; it’s just the concept that’s gotten tired. If you liked the previous “Shrek” films, this one will be an amiable re-visit to home turf; if, like me, you never quite got the appeal of the in-jokey franchise, this one won’t change your mind.
Shrek Forever After
Seeing an ogre in 3-D has never been on my bucket list, but that didn’t stop the “Shrek” team from jumping on the latest wave of the visual fad. Yes, folks, it’s a Shrek so close you can almost smell him.
See what I mean? Not a selling point. Nevertheless, “Shrek Forever After” tries to pump a little life into the animated franchise (originally based on William Steig’s fairy tale book), with installment #4. This sequel must be counted a slight improvement over the previous “Shrek the Third,” and it does have a rather ingenious storyline. This is an “alternate reality” Shrek tale.
We find the lovable ogre (voiced, as ever, by Mike Myers) missing his life as a bachelor ogre—before marrying Fiona (Cameron Diaz), before having kids, before becoming thoroughly domesticated. In a weak moment with the sorcerer Rumpelstiltskin (Walt Dohrn), Shrek enters a bargain that will allow him to enjoy one day of ogre-ness. Alas, in “It’s a Wonderful Life” fashion, he finds himself living in a nightmare version of his old life.
In the funniest variation on this new reality, the formerly preening Puss in Boots (Antonio Banderas) has become a tubby house cat. Donkey (Eddie Murphy), though much abused in the topsy-turvy world, is still irrepressible, and Fiona has become a warrior-queen of the ogre nation.
The lesson? Don’t trust Rumpelstiltskin. The diminutive villain, who strongly resembles a troll doll when he puts on his orange fright wig, makes for an amusingly screechy bad guy.
The self-contained nature of the plot means that director Mike Mitchell (“Sky High”) doesn’t have to laboriously tie up all the story threads from before, which seems to free up the movie.
And, a real plus, this fourth “Shrek” doesn’t lean as heavily on 21st-century pop-culture gags for so many jokes, although there are still a few too many hit songs infiltrating the soundtrack.
Which leaves us with the 3-D. “Shrek Forever After” scores points for having fun with the process, but not depending on it for its impact. Given Shrek’s tendency to extract his own ear wax, this restraint is clearly a good thing. And occasionally—the sight of witches flying through the night sky, for instance—the movie becomes a cool visual treat.
If this really is the final chapter in the “Shrek” series, it’s a spirited enough way to go out—and I say that as someone who never really warmed up to the franchise in the first place. But it might go in another direction: a “Puss in Boots” vehicle is being planned—and with Antonio Banderas such a lively voice actor, that might be a great idea.
May 21, 2021
Robert Horton is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.