'Shrek Forever After'
Rated: PG. Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes. 3½ stars.
With a few rare exceptions, movie sequels are usually disappointing. This is particularly true of summer releases, which often spend more time and effort on marketing campaigns than script development, resulting in effects-heavy, gimmicky movies aimed at the low-hanging fruit of summertime moviegoers — those with a proven affinity for the original and a lot of free time.
It certainly seems like "Shrek Forever After," the fourth in DreamWorks Animation's ever-popular animated ogre series, meets most of these dismal prerequisites, except for one — it's just about as fun as the 2001 original. Though impossible to recreate the joy we felt when first encountering "Shrek's" twisted take on familiar fairy tales, the latest installment comes close, recapturing what we loved about its characters — Shrek's reluctant niceness, Donkey's overeager goofiness, Puss in Boots' swashbuckling silliness — and surrounding them with witty banter, pop culture references and kitschy musical interludes capable of keeping kids and adults equally entertained.
As the generally panned "Shrek the Third" (2007) proved, you can only keep a story fresh for so long. This time around, writers John Klausner and Darren Lemke use a little magic to take us back to the beginning — when the beautiful Princess Fiona (Cameron Diaz), cursed with a spell that made her a part-time ogre, was locked away in a castle tower awaiting the man who could free her with "love's true kiss." By now, we know it was Shrek (Mike Myers) who fit the bill and, when the film opens, we see Shrek and Fiona enjoying a sickeningly sweet domestic life with three little ogres and an abundance of adoring friends, including Donkey (Eddie Murphy) and Puss in Boots (Antonio Banderas).
But Shrek's Happily Ever After is short-lived. With the help of a clever, fast-paced montage, Shrek's family life is hilariously transformed from domestic bliss to a tedious prison of repetition and boredom. Yes, Shrek is having a midlife crisis, and his momentary yearning for bachelorhood takes him not to a Ferrari salesman, but to Rumpelstiltskin (Walt Dohrn), a diminutive tyrant-in-waiting who convinces Shrek to sign a contract trading one day from his childhood for a family-free day of ogre mayhem. By the time he figures out the catch — he'd inadvertently given away the day he was born — it's too late, and Shrek is stranded in a world where he never met (or rescued) Fiona and oppressed ogres are fighting an underground resistance against their mad dictator, Rumpelstiltskin.
When Shrek learns of a loophole in his contract — the same "love's true kiss" — he sets out to find Fiona. Sounds easy enough, except Fiona, now leader of the ogre resistance, doesn't know Shrek from any other green guy. And besides, she gave up on that true love nonsense about the same time she stopped waiting to be rescued and escaped from the castle tower herself.
As expected for most of this summer's big releases, "Shrek Forever After" is in 3-D. While adding little to the experience beyond a small jolt of initial excitement from the kids in the audience, the added dimension avoids being a distraction.
In addition to the regular cast members, "Shrek Forever After" boasts an intriguing list of supporting voices from television hits, including Kathy Griffin ("My Life on the D List"), Jon Hamm ("Mad Men"), Jane Lynch (Sue Sylvester from "Glee"), even "Today's" Meredith Vieira.
But whom are we kidding? This is Shrek's show, and the final chapter (one assumes) is fresh, funny and, for once, a sequel worthy of summer blockbuster status.