You don't have to be a rocket scientist in order to spot the pattern developing during this much-hyped summer of sequels. Following two highly-entertaining and well thought-out installments in the Spider-Man franchise, we were offered a discombobulated third part that couldn't clean up its room without making it messier. Though Spidey is certainly not a tough act to follow, our lovable green ogre was in a similar position. Both Shrek and Shrek 2 were gems; ideal family comedies. A little something for the kids, a little something for the adults, and a lot of something at the box office. But when you begin to venture into threequel territory, there's a certain amount of risk that continuously whispers in your ear -- "How do we keep this thing fresh?" it asks. After all, even a little kid -- the kind that jumps up and down, screaming "Do it again, daddy!" -- will eventually become bored and move onto something else.
Although it's become increasingly more difficult to stand out in an animated marketplace flooded with generic knock-offs, Shrek the Third makes a bold attempt to reignite the magic using familiar ingredients and a whole new cast of characters. That said, the series is beginning to lose its flavor; Shrek (Mike Myers) and his cohorts continue to remain sharp, witty and adorable, but that inventive shine is fading. And what remains is an enjoyable, yet predictable version of something we used to love ... when it was new, when it was fresh and when it wasn't trying as hard to send multiple messages through a few neatly-placed Hallmark-esque monologues. For parents (especially soon-to-be fathers), Shrek the Third might seem therapeutic in a way, and it's also a great film to show those kids struggling to fit in at school. As far as the rest of us go, well, Shrek himself summed it up nicely when, half-way through the film, he blurted out, "Would you like some eggs with that ham?"
As the film opens up, we find an awkward Shrek playing substitute for his gravely ill father-in-law (or perhaps I should say, frog-in-law), King Harold (John Cleese). With help from his wife Princess Fiona (Cameron Diaz), Shrek bumbles throughout the castle, screwing up even the simplest of royal tasks. While on his death bed (hilariously struggling through those last breaths), King Harold informs Shrek that he is to take over as king of Far, Far Away. Ah, but an ogre is not fit to lead a kingdom; he's too scary, too ugly. And besides, an ogre doesn't belong in a castle -- he belongs at home near his dirty, there's-no-place-like-home swamp. Thus begins a quest to find the only remaining heir; Fiona's long-lost cousin Artie (Justin Timberlake). As Shrek, along with sidekicks Donkey (Eddie Murphy) and Puss In Boots (Antonio Banderas) set out for a long voyage, Fiona stays behind to tend to another problematic situation -- that being the little green dude growing in her belly.
With the kingdom in a vulnerable spot, an old nemesis quickly plots his return. Fed up with his sloppy and unrewarding dinner theater performances, Prince Charming (Rupert Everett) is determined to win back the land he feels is rightfully his. This aspiring thesp longs for a bigger stage, but in order to obtain his much-deserved (or so he says) time in the spotlight, Charming must, well, charm a familiar crop of fairytale villains and convince them that their "happily ever afters" are long overdue. At the same time, Shrek must find a way to pluck the heroically-challenged Artie out of his OC-like high school (where the valley girls are, like, everywhere) and convince him that he's the perfect fit for a king. But will Shrek return in time to save Far, Far Away, Princess Fiona and the unborn child he keeps having nightmares about? Or, will he walk right into Charming's perfectly-planned trap? What do you think?
Unlike the first two films, Shrek the Third is literally packed full of characters; so much so that I wouldn't be surprised if a new one was introduced every other minute. While it's definitely fun to watch and see which fairytale figures show up (as well as how they're used), some are unfortunately under-developed. The inclusion of Snow White (as voiced by the scene-stealing Amy Poehler) , Sleeping Beauty (Cheri Oteri) and Cinderella (Amy Sedaris) as a group of nagging stuck-up snobs was priceless, but I couldn't help but miss the joke when the trio miraculously became a Charlie's Angels-type fighting force. How, exactly, was that transformation believable? I loved that Captain Hook finally showed up (accompanied by the grimy voice of Ian Mcshane, no less), but the writers made him way too tame. Such is the theme with Shrek the Third; whereas the first two took chances with some edgier material, this installment definitely plays it safe.
But that's not to say the film isn't worth seeing; compared to Spider-Man 3, Shrek the Third is a masterpiece. The animation has come a long way in three years, and it shows in the little details (facial expressions, etc ... ) applied here. Quite simply, the film just looks fantastic. Vibrant colors and finely-crafted backdrops pave the way for characters who, believe it or not, felt more alive in this world than they did back in those old books or cartoons. Credit has to go to Chris Miller who, after performing a number of odd jobs on the previous two films, took over for Andrew Adamson as director and provided a seamless transition. With the exception of Justin Timberlake (who, lets face it, wasn't given much to work with -- the character of Artie is about as cliched and boring as they come), pic's outstanding line-up of voice talent shines once again. As per usual, Mike Myers owns the film, and the character. In my opinion, there would be no Shrek without this guy. Additionally, Rupert Everett, John Cleese and Eric Idle (whose new-agey, hippified Merlin is a blast) help provide some hysterical support.
However, the writers (the same old gang of six or seven) dropped the ball on Donkey and Puss In Boots. And it's not even fair to blame Murphy and Banderas; both actors clearly showed up to do what they do best. But instead of fleshing the two characters out some more (like they did with Shrek and Fiona), Donkey and Puss are shoved to the side, handed a cheap swap-a-voice storyline and kindly asked to remain in the background so that audiences can feast on a plethora of new faces. I truly hope that trend does not continue in future installments (which, mind you, were set up a number of times throughout), because it's part of the reason why this Shrek shtick is beginning to feel a tad old. But even with its weak spots, Shrek the Third achieves what most films do not -- it entertains. It makes you smile. It makes you laugh. It makes you feel good. And while it's probably the only Shrek film I won't re-watch down the line, it's easily the first (of many, I hope) dynamite family comedy of 2007.