All the more disappointing for arriving just two months after How to Train Your Dragon, which soars much higher than any other product every created by Dreamworks Animation, Shrek Forever After is nothing more than a 90-minute curtain call. It’s a joyless exercise in giving a once-promising franchise even less of a reason to exist. Ah, but back in 2001 – nearly a decade, if you can believe it – Shrek seemed so fresh, though computer animation was much younger then, as was I.
Shrek, the story of a giant green ogre (Mike Myers) and his fairy-tale world, is snarky and a little mean, loaded down with instantly out-of-date pop culture references, but I love the way it starts out as a rebuke of the classic fairy tale arcs only to end up conforming to them. Shrek 2, which came along in 2004, is even better. It’s faster, funnier, denser with gags and more ridiculously sublime. With Shrek the Third in 2007, franchise rot began to creep into the foundations. The movie wheezes and creaks more than its predecessors as it pushes a perilously thin plot through a small deficit of jokes. It kind of works, but it’s dangerously close to the edge that the fourth installment tumbles over.
With Shrek Forever After, we’ve left humor and wit far, far behind, along with any reason to care. After all, this is a film with stakes so high that Shrek could not only die, but he could never have existed in the first place. (The plot involves some crazy Rumpelstiltskin scheme that creates an alternate universe wherein Shrek was never born). Despite all that danger to these beloved characters, I simply didn’t care.
Oh, sure, the movie’s animated at the level of quality we’ve come to expect. The voice work from returning cast members Cameron Diaz (as the princess), Eddie Murphy (as the donkey), and Antonio Banderas (as Puss in Boots) is competent. The whole enterprise moves along at a good clip. Missing are invention, joy, and novelty. By now, I’ve seen these characters traipse through so many plots and speak so much banter and snap out so many one-liners that a little more effort is needed to engage me. As appealing as these characters are, they’re no Bugs Bunny or Mickey Mouse. And even those beloved characters were given a variety of things to do in their classic shorts. To watch this fourth Shrek film feels like watching a retread of a retread.
The end credits roll over a selection of clips and images from the previous three films. I suppose it should be a schmaltzy goodbye to a middling-to-good franchise. Instead, it merely points out all the more starkly how better the early films were, and how the series is now twice as long as it should be. The whole thing just made me wish I’d stayed home and rewatched Shrek 2 instead.