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Shrek the Third

Shrek with Artie Pendragon

Director: Chris Miller
Starring: Mike Myers, Cameron Diaz, Eddie Murphy, Antonio Banderas

It feels odd to give Shrek the Third a half a star less than Spider Man 3, when Spidey was a jumbled mess and the the plot of this latest Shrek displays workmanlike competency. I credit it to my opinion of the Sam Raimi opus having dropped a peg or two as time has passed and to the fact that — in Shrek’s case — hitting all the beats does not a successful sequel make.

Tediously competent, Shrek the Third is also strangely flat. While Eddie Murphy’s and Antonio Banderas’ voices are unmistakable, the lackluster performances of Mike Myers and Cameron Diaz as the titular ogres made me wonder if they’d priced themselves out of the third episode and been replaced by understudies. This movie felt tired and it dragged badly in several spots. I seem to remember (perhaps wrongly) Myers bringing so much more comic fire to the original.

The plot of this third installment, picking up after the happily-ever-after of No. 2, finds Shrek suddenly king of the magic land — a job he doesn’t want. Also, Fionna is pregnant, and Shrek dreads fatherhood. The writers are trying to reprise part of the original charm of the first Shrek flick: that its hero wanted nothing more than to be left the hell alone. Characters violating that solitude, combined with Murphy’s annoying wanna-be-sidekick Donkey, created character tension and comedy. Now that the film’s happily married, socially adjusted green giant is relatively jolly, that comedic device has been lost.

Shrek in the Sack

In his quest to find a different heir to the throne, Shrek rescues teenage loser Artie Pendragon from the kind of miserable hell that is the standard Hollywood take on high-school. This is another point where the filmmakers go wrong. While an animated family feature should have broad appeal, the Shrek series has been primarily directed at kids. The two key issues, then, for Shrek, are wildly inappropriate: “High school is hell,” and “Sometimes daddies don’t love their babies.”

“Welcome to the hard world of reality, you little brats! ” Love, Dreamworks.

You wonder whether the creators have any idea how strongly their mid-thirties sensibilities infect this film. All the music cues are bizarre. The film tries to milk laughs by bringing up old songs we’d know well and using them in this fantasy-world context. Only, how many viewers in the target demographic are going to recognize and appreciate Heart’s “Barracuda”? Or recognize the sound effect of Steve Austin using his Six-Million Dollar Man powers — 30 years after that show folded? (If you answered both questions with “none,” you are correct.)

In another subplot, Prince Charming has seized the kingdom in Shrek’s absence. His evil plan is to stage a musical and kill Shrek on stage opening night. Why a musical? I suspect even the screenwriters couldn’t answer that question. Charming is in the movie so that as the writers go through their checklist of proven tricks, they can scratch off “fairy-tale heroes are jerks.” They also cover “Fairy-tale princesses are vain and stupid,” “Babies are cute and troublesome” and, of course, “Fart jokes are funny.” (sigh)

The film also chews through a host of other standard gags. While Eddie Murphy and Antonio Banderas are a highlight, there’s something lost in this third installment. The conflicts that illuminated the characters so well in previous films have largely been resolved. In the original, Murphy’s Donkey was scared, alone and desperately wanted to be accepted by Shrek. Now that actually he has been accepted, there’s much less color to the role. And Banderas’  Puss in Boots —  an assassin in the last movie — has been neutered by his conversion to sidekick.

The animation is pretty good, though. There’s some nice camera work, and every blade of grass and ocean wave is so flawlessly rendered they might as well have shot live action. So if you’re an animation geek, check it out. If you liked the first two Shreks, you’ll probably feel incomplete without seeing the third, but if you want your fairy tale stories to have a little charm, a few surprises and more than a passing attempt at a heart, wait for Stardust later this summer and rent The Princess Bride, Beauty and the Beast or Pinocchio to tide you over.

P.S to all Hollywood animators: The sight of not-so-tough cartoon characters suddenly jumping into dramatic martial arts poses when a fight comes along is too tired to be funny. Especially if you do it about 15 times in one movie. Thanks.