Several years ago, when "feature-length CGI features" were just getting big, I went to one of my very first press screenings and saw a film (that I loved) called Shrek. I distinctly remember enjoying the flick's off-kilter interpretation of the fairy tale characters we all know and love, the zippy pace and beautiful animation, the slightly snarky and admirably subversive sense of humor. Years later I revisited the film and realized I hadn't just been taken in by the gimmick (and my newbie film critic status) -- I absolutely and sincerely believe that Shrek is a modern classic among animated features.

And then the sequels came. Shrek 2 (2004) borrowed the Guess Who's Coming to Dinner hook where Princess Fiona's disapproving parents were forced to deal with the blustery ogre Shrek; in Shrek the Third (2007) we got a slight concept, a small amount of chuckles, and a rather uninteresting King Arthur subplot. This summer we're promised "the final chapter" in Shrek Forever After, and while Part 4 is certainly an improvement over its predecessor ... well, I guess I should stop expecting these sequels to recapture the magic of the original Shrek. The filmmakers certainly don't seem to think it's a priority.

For some bizarre reason, the Shrek Forever After screenwriters thought that the best way to end this monumentally popular series would be to deliver ... the It's a Wonderful Life concept. Employed countless times in sitcoms and cartoons, this is the pitch in which our main character says something to the effect of "Oh, I wish I was never born!" and {poof!} we're off to see how Shrek's world would look if he'd never met up with Donkey, Fiona, Puss in Boots, Gingy, Pinocchio, and all the other freaky fairy tale characters. So instead of one final adventure with all these colorful characters, we're offered an "alternate reality" Shrek who must reacquaint himself with all his old pals. Weird.

There's no denying that the animation is truly lovely -- if certainly nothing revolutionary at this point in the CG game -- and that the actors seem to be having a good time playing their old characters, plus the intention of a warm-hearted "message" is always worthy of note -- but unfortunately Shrek Forever After plays (way) more to the little kids than to anyone else (whereas the original Shrek was geared for young and old alike). Oh sure, our plot sees Shrek pretty much fed up with his role as domesticated daddy ogre, and it raises some familiar points for any young parents in the audience -- but we all know from frame one where the movie is going: The painfully old-hat "just be grateful for what you have" lesson.

As is often the case, Shrek's supporting characters get all the best material. Mike Myers does manage to bring a gruffly lovable attitude to Shrek, but it's nothing that actor hasn't done in the previous chapters. Cameron Diaz's Fiona gets to play an ogre warrior with a real angry streak, but the "girl power!" approach is quickly muted by a hastily-presented subplot that revolves around a tribe of oppressed ogres who must fight back against the evil Rumplestiltskin. (He's the one who tricks Shrek into revisiting his pre-Fiona days -- perhaps forever.)

Much of the film feels like a Shrek checklist, truth be told: silly puns and fairy-tale-style visual gags? Check. Whining donkey and frustrated ogre? Check. Pop culture references, broad puns and silly jokes about bodily functions, and lots and lots of familiar rock songs? Check, check, and check -- although I do give Shrek 4 huge points for an amusing dance sequence set to ... the Beastie Boys, of all bands. Plus Eddie Murphy (as Donkey) does deliver one of the franchise's funniest lines during an argument with the Gingerbread Man -- which I certainly won't spoil here. Isolated moments shine, like an early montage in which Shrek gets fed up with life and a later sequence set to The Carpenters -- which is really quite funny.

But here's the main problem: CG features have come a long way since the first Shrek. DreamWorks knows this because they (with films like Kung Fu Panda and How to Train Your Dragon) are one of the finest animation studios in the world. As such, they could have worked a bit harder on the plot and the script, because if their goal is to complete the Shrek franchise with a bang -- they should have used a concept that wasn't already threadbare in 1965. It seems there's only room for originality and weirdness in a "Part 1," because after that the formula is king. Regarding the 3D presentation, it simply doesn't add all that much. The action scenes and the landscapes "pop" a little more, I suppose, but (as usual) it's just a gimmick.

Despite the film's attempts to cater to a grown-up audience in small fits and starts, this is most assuredly a kiddie flick. And who am I to begrudge an entire generation of tots their final visit with the big, green, goofy ogre? The magic of the first flick is all but lost, but Shrek Forever After is still good enough for the kids. And that's OK. I just wish (as a grown-up kid myself) that Shrek's last adventure was a little fresher than this.