The It's A Wonderful Life-inspired plot of Shrek Forever After, the fourth and ostensibly final Shrek film, is a bit stale, but a funny script and fewer pop-culture references make it better than previous sequels.
In the film, which opens today, Shrek (Mike Myers) and Fiona (Cameron Diaz) have settled down with their three one-year-old triplets, but domestic life doesn't suit him. After realizing he's lost his roar and his ability to scare villagers, Shrek has a midlife crisis. The evil Rumpelstiltskin (Walter Dohrn) offers to help him regain his mojo if he gives up a single day of his life. The catch: Rumpelstiltskin chooses the day Shrek was born, erasing his entire life.
Shrek winds up in an alternate version of Far Far Away, which Rumpelstiltskin rules with the help of his wicked witch minion (Jane Lynch). Fiona is organizing a resistance movement with other persecuted ogres, including Brogan (Jon Hamm). Shrek's sidekicks are no help; Gingy (Conrad Vernon) is a professional gladiator who fights animal crackers, Donkey (Eddie Murphy) is stuck pulling a cart, and Puss in Boots has gotten fat and lazy. Sharing "True Love's Kiss" with Fiona is the only way Shrek can nullify his contract with Rumpelstiltskin, but unfortunately she wants nothing to do with him.
It's hard for any franchise to still be fresh after four films, but most critics say Shrek Forever After is, at the very least, better than Shrek The Third. There are fewer cheap jokes and pointless references to other films than in the previous movie, and the main characters "remain as vital and engaging fusions of image, personality and voice as any characters in the history of animation."
Below, the reviews:
As sequels go, Forever After (capably directed by Mike Mitchell) is charming, giddy fun, though it can never be quite as fresh as Shrek, whose tone and style it most resembles. Josh Klausner and Darren Lemke's sharp screenplay clips along, driven by the usual merrily irreverent one-liners, and the parent-pandering that has become a staple of children's movies is kept within manageable limits. (It's provided mostly by new characters voiced by Mad Men's Jon Hamm and Glee's Jane Lynch, and by a soundtrack featuring Karen Carpenter.) The visual jokes - one standout is an army of ogres condemned by the Pied Piper to perpetual line-dancing - are pretty irresistible.
There's enough here that's clever and new — and at times very funny — to keep things from feeling stale. Many beloved old characters return, only much transformed. Gingy the gingerbread man (Conrad Vernon) is now a scarred professional gladiator, fighting animal crackers in an arena for sport. Donkey (Eddie Murphy) is a mangy beast of burden, pulling the paddy wagon into which Shrek is thrown after he's captured. Most hilariously, Puss (Antonio Banderas) can no longer fit into his boots, having put on well more than a few pounds as Fiona's pampered pet. Among the new characters, Rumpelstiltskin makes for a perfect villain. Vain, insecure and ridiculous in an assortment of constantly changing wigs, he's a pleasure to boo and hiss at.
Shrek Forever After, the fourth (and, by all accounts, final) installment in the hugely popular series about the personable green ogre, dispenses with many of the hallmarks of the franchise. Considerably toned down are the endless pop-culture references and in-jokes to other movies. There are no Ricky Martin musical numbers this time; there is no re-creation of the bullet-time camera work from The Matrix. For this last chapter, the filmmakers play things relatively straight, resulting in the best Shrek movie to date.
...It's important to read the fine print in screenplays too. This one, by Josh Klausner and Darren Lemke, turns out to be a recycling machine that recalls the high points of previous installments without demonstrating the need for a new one. While there's some suspense in whether Shrek will be able to break Rumpelstilstskin's contract with an out clause that posits the power of a loving kiss, there's also a sense of filmmakers searching for whatever will help fill the running time. Ninety-three minutes isn't a long time, but some of it passes very, very slowly.
Just briefly, Shrek 4 toys with a number of potentially meaningful ideas, including that Shrek's wife Fiona (Cameron Diaz) might have been a smarter, stronger person without him, and that parenthood might have come at a cost for her, too. But that spirit of laziness reigns, so conceptual follow-up becomes secondary to watching Eddie Murphy as Donkey, braying out a pop-hit medley while pretending to be a radio. The indifference might be clearest in Shrek's lame, never-explained failure to tell Fiona the truth and enlist her help, even when she repeatedly asks what's going on. Or in the way the story plays out, via poop jokes and pro forma chase scenes. Or in the gags repeated verbatim from past Shrek films. Or via the usual eye-rolling choices of pop-music cues. (Two characters meeting? Time for Lionel Richie's "Hello"!) Or in the closing credits, which recycle old animation of characters not even in this film. Kids' movies are rarely profoundly thoughtful, but there's no reason to be this insulting about it, either.
Josh Klausner and Darren Lemke's screenplay creates some fun with the personality and visual changes the familiar characters have undergone, but as with so many sequels to sequels, Shrek Forever After has lost much of the simple charm, humor and heart that marked its predecessors. No doubt looking to exploit the sensory stimulation offered by 3D, the filmmakers have ramped up the action, most notably in a high-flying broom chase featuring Shrek and Donkey and the witches and an elaborate climactic battle sequence. (Tellingly, this is the first in the series to be presented in widescreen.)
Since all Shrek movies have a quest, it's no surprise that this one drags its veteran characters through a variety of adventures on their way to finding the exit clause in Rumpelstiltskin's dastardly contract. What's amazing is how flat and modestly funny those adventures are, even in 3-D. Where once this DreamWorks franchise was about goosing convention, it now seems all about pandering to the lowest expectations. There isn't anything in Shrek Forever After that rises much above formulaic family fare.
In the fourth and ostensibly final installment, Shrek and company still have some appeal, but the energy is lacking and the fun feels forced. Though Shrek Forever After has some clever lines - notably more than in the third movie - the pop-culture references and joyous spirit have been replaced by spurts of slapstick and contrived mania. Like many other movies lately, it's needlessly in 3-D. Nothing in the animated movie is enhanced by the technology, unlike DreamWorks' more dazzling recent effort, How to Train Your Dragon. Shrek already had a distinctive storybook design, and throwing in crazy dances and objects flung toward our faces adds nothing.
What was once a fresh, self-referential twist on the vulturish consumption of pop culture when the first Shrek debuted in 2001 has become a lazy corporate tic. Talking over the heads of kids, the enterprise counts on adult audiences to forgive the unoriginal storytelling and, one more time, settle for the game of spot-the-reference, never mind that the references crib from the works, songs, catchphrases, and punchlines of others for their charms.
Because this you-don't-know-what-you-have-till-it's-gone allegory is so familiar, Shrek Forever After feels a bit tired at its core. For all its high jinks, it seems directed less at children than at their parents. There is no getting around it: Shrek is now a beleaguered ex-monster with a case of midlife angst. That said, Shrek Forever After adroitly camouflages its fatigue with the usual blizzard of wisecracks, pop-culture references and sight gags... What fortifies Shrek Forever After are its brilliantly realized principal characters, who nearly a decade after the first Shrek film remain as vital and engaging fusions of image, personality and voice as any characters in the history of animation. The self-effacing Shrek, an endearing slob with a Scottish brogue whose idea of heaven is to lie in the backyard and make the muddy equivalent of snow angels, may now be a middle-aged everyman, but he is as endearing as ever.
Bringing some much needed edge is director Mike Mitchell, whose background includes storyboarding stints on a number of animated features, including 2004's Shrek 2, as well as directing the live action Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo, but don't hold that against him. What he's managed to extract from actors and animators alike is a deeper level of emotion and one of the movie's best features. Whether it's the new skin each of the characters must slip into - Donkey is just a donkey, Puss is pampered beyond plump and Fiona is re-imagined as a Viking-esque warrior princess seriously working the hair - or everyone trying to make sure Shrek has a proper send off, it works. For all the nuance of the other central characters, Mitchell lets Dohrn go a little crazy with Rumpel, in a good way that keeps you wondering not if, but when things are going to spin out of control. He is a modern-day villain, a slick, all-risk-no-reward huckster who would thrive on Wall Street - the perfect foil for the metrosexual softy Shrek has become. When Rumpel wigs out - both figuratively and literally - he nearly steals the show.