I've been called a "soft touch" where certain mega-popular Hollywood franchises are concerned: I loved the first two Shrek movies, I adored the first two Spider-Man movies, and don't even get me started on those Lord of the Rings masterpieces. As critical as I can be from time to time (and believe me, I can be a real whiny geek sometimes), I really love sitting down and being treated to a high-end, fast-paced, and well-constructed piece of Popcorn Movie-making. And don't even mention those Pirates of the Caribbean flicks -- because I'll never shut up about 'em.

Having said that, I can't help but think that the 2007 Summer Movie Season (the one that's predicted to be the most profitable summer season of all time) is getting off to a fairly limp start. My first relative disappointment was Spider-Man 3, which I found to be all sorts of dry, redundant and generally uneventful. And now comes Shrek the Third, second sequel to the resoundingly popular Shrek -- which is a movie that had me giggling my way out of the theater like I was a 6-year-old on a chocolate high. Shrek 2 proved to be a surprisingly worthwhile follow-up, mainly because of its clever screenplay and attention to (amusingly silly) character development. Needless to say I walked into Shrek 3 with very high hopes -- which might help to explain why I found the flick a little ... lacking. Not terrible, but just sort of limp, obvious and lethargic.

The animation is as flawless as ever and most of the voice actors seem to be having a pretty good time, but there's just no getting around the fact that the franchise seems to be running on auto-pilot, more than content to dole out the same old material for the same old box office jackpot. With all its new characters, sequel set-ups and distressingly flaccid comedy bits, Shrek the Third feels more like a better-than-average direct-to-video sequel than anything on par with the original Shrek. The formula is starting to show signs of overuse, basically, and while your Shrek-addicted tots will most likely adore what's offered in this third chapter, I'm afraid the grown-ups simply won't have as a good a time as they're used to.

The plot is a sketchy framework indeed: The frog king has died, which means Shrek may be next in line to wear the Far Far Away crown -- and he definitely doesn't want it. In an effort to locate a suitable heir, Shrek (along with Donkey and The Booted Kitty) must travel to a distant high school, enlist the young "Artie" for regal duty, and make it back home in a hurry -- because Princess Fiona is expecting an ogre baby. While Shrek's away, the scheming Prince Charming has enlisted a bunch of fairy tale villains, and together they plan to claim Far Far Away for themselves. This gives Fiona and her princess pals (Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella and Rapunzel) a subplot to worry about while Shrek deals with a ditzy wizard, a petulant teenager and two silly animals who've magically switched voices.

So while it's true that you don't really sit down with a Shrek flick looking for brilliant plot-lines, the story offered in Shrek the Third seems piecemeal at best. Yes, there are several chuckle-worthy little bits of dialogue peppered throughout the film (most of which belong to Donkey and Puss) and of course the backgrounds are littered with rather amusing little gags, puns and fairy tale in-jokes. The pop culture references are (of course) everywhere and the simple LOOK of the movie is pretty darn impressive -- but the spark seems to have diminished this time. What used to be novel and clever is now just another formula. Based only on their voice work, Mike Myers and Cameron Diaz also seem a little bored with what's going on -- and I regret to admit that I know how they feel. (Minus the millions, of course.)

The only newcomer who contributes anything worthwhile is Amy Poehler as Snow White. (She actually has the best scene in the movie.) The always-welcome Eric Idle earns a few mild chuckles as a blithering wizard, but whose idea was it to cast Justin Timberlake in a central role? Even taking into account that this is just voice acting, the guy still shows a serious lack of personality. And what's up with giving hilarious folks like Amy Sedaris, Ian McShane, Seth Rogen and John Krasinski a few throwaway lines of dialog if none of 'em are funny? You'd think that a production boasting seven screenwriters could come up with something a little more creative than Hooter's references, messy baby gags, and a big dollop of dreary "believe in yourself!" moralizing.

In an effort to squeeze every last character into the sketchy plot, director Chris Miller (who stepped in after Andrew Adamson bailed for Narnia) ends up spreading Shrek the Third way too thin. I remember laughing very frequently as I watched (and re-watched) the original Shrek, but this second sequel has a much less impressive batting average where the giggles are concerned. And while the first two chapters could be accurately described as "adventure stories," this one's full-bore sitcom all the way. Heck, this is the first Shrek flick that lacks a really impressive action set piece. Maybe they wanted to keep costs down and decided to jettison the action bits.

The movie delivers long stretches during which there's little to enjoy besides the stunning animation work -- oh, but the producers were darn sure to include not only a new team of little girl-friendly Super Princesses, but also a bunch of painfully adorable ogre babies. Frankly I felt like I was watching a toy advertisement as Shrek 3 unspooled. At its best moments, some of the old, sly, off-kilter Shrek charm is definitely there, but for the most part this third helping lacks the energy, the momentum and the the big belly laughs I've come to expect from the series.

Maybe I'm being a bit tough on the ol' green guy, but his third adventure seems more like a corporate decision then anything. It's just that when you're offered two delicious treats in a row, and then the third one feels rushed, bland and undercooked, it's tough not to feel a bit disappointed. Doubtful that my disappointment will make one nickel's worth of damage at the box office, but my only advice to the adults would be: Don't expect to laugh as much as you did with the first two entries -- and start saving now for the newest Shrek toys.