OGRE AND OUT? : Chris Miller’s ‘Shrek the Third’ [6/10]

Cinema's not-so-jolly green giant returns once again in Shrek the Third, the amusing but ultimately rather disappointing sequel to runaway hits Shrek (2001) and Shrek 2 (2004). While this isn't a bad film by any means, the old principle of diminishing returns is sadly evident: in creative terms, the "franchise" seems to be running out of steam and ideas, even if financially it remains successful. Indeed, it's already proved a sufficiently robust draw at the US box-office to ensure that Shrek 4 has been announced for the summer of 2010, with talk of a fifth instalment as well as subsidiary spin-offs in various media. For many viewers, however, especially older patrons and those without small children, this may prove the juncture at which they bid elect to bid Shrek a grateful adieu.

At first glance, the directors (two are credited) and the scriptwriters (seven listed) seem to stick faithfully to the tried-and-tested formula laid down in the first two movies – both of which were co-directed by Andrew Adamson (who now cedes 'helming' duties to Chris Miller and 'co-director Raman Hui and is credited solely with supplying the story.) Each of the computer-animated Shrek films – rather loosely based on by William Steig's 1990 picture-book Shrek! – takes an irreverent post-modern approach to the fairy-tale genre, subverting traditional assumptions (ogres are heroic; handsome princes obnoxious and/or malicious) and incorporating all manner of anachronistic pop-culture references.

This time around the irascible-but-lovable ogre Shrek (voiced by Mike Myers) – having wed his beloved Princess Fiona (Cameron Diaz) at the end of 1, and won over her skeptical royal parents (John Cleese, Julie Andrews) at the conclusion of 2 – struggles to adapt to life 'at court'. With his father-in-law (who has the form of a frog) histrionically ailing, many royal duties devolve to Shrek and Fiona – a situation which causes the unpretentious, earthy Shrek all manner of embarrassment and awkwardness.

But when the king finally expires (in a scene that's both droll and unexpectedly poignant), it appears that the couple may have to occupy the throne full-time – unless Shrek can track down the only alternative heir, the seldom-seen, teenage Prince Arthur. Fiona, meanwhile, has more pressing priorities – she's as keen to start a family as the responsibility-phobic Shrek is reluctant. The quest for Arthur gives the increasingly-harrassed Shrek an excuse to leave town for a while in company with his faithful sidekicks Donkey (Eddie Murphy) and Puss-In-Boots (Antonio Banderas) – but it also provides an opportunity for the scheming Prince Charming (Rupert Everett) to return from exile and grasp the semi-vacant crown…

The transition from Shrek to Shrek 2 was a textbook example of how to keep a film-series fresh. Of course, Adamson and company had a strong foundation to build on: the first picture beat Monsters Inc to the inaugural Best Animated Feature Oscar, was nominated for Best Original Screenplay, and, back when CGI animation was still in its relative infancy, seemed like a fascinatingly offbeat novelty. Part two introduced a raft of classy British voice-talent (Andrews, Cleese, Everett, Jennifer Saunders as the devious Fairy Godmother) as well as the character who remains the series' most inspired creation, Puss-In-Boots – not to mention a scene-stealing Bichon Frise puppy.

Shrek the Third features neither Saunders nor the Bichon Frise, and the 'name' newcomers are a somewhat unspectacular bunch in comparison with the last batch of arrivals – Justin Timberlake as the hapless Arthur (aka 'Artie'), Eric Idle as an antic, hippyish Merlin and Ian McShane as Captain Hook. The latter pair show some potential in their limited screen-time, but aren't given enough to do – ditto Artie's high-school rival, the strutting jockish golden-boy Lancelot (John Krasinski) and Fiona's gal-pals Snow White (Amy Poehler), Sleeping Beauty (Cheri Oteri), Cinderella (Amy Sedaris) and Rapunzel (Maya Rudolph). Snow White is especially underused – though she is front-and-centre during one of the picture's highlights, as a charming birds-and-critters Disney moment suddenly turns into a Charlies' Angels-ish action sequence complete with pounding Led Zeppelin accompaniment.

Elsewhere Shrek the Third elicits more in the way of smiles and chuckles rather than all-out belly-laughs. Puss is still top value, though it's typical of the way the film's many cooks sabotage their own broth that this brilliantly-conceived character – whose comic effect relies heavily on the incongruity between his diminutive feline stature and Banderas's Latin-lover vocal inflections – spends several sequences occupying Donkey's body (and vice-versa) after one of Merlin's spells goes slightly awry, to somewhat tiresome effect. Visual gags, on the whole, come off rather better than verbal wisecracks: as in the first two films, there's much incidental joy to be had from the crowded gallery of "extras" and wordless supporting players who slink in and out of shot; while the sequence in which life of the Gingerbread Man (Conrad Vernon) flashes before his eyes – as 'biscuit boy' faces mortal peril yet again – is a breakneck montage of impressively jaunty wit.

Such grace-notes ensure that Shrek the Third (an odd way to present the title, misleadingly implying a third generation of similarly-monikered ogres) remains watchable throughout its brisk eighty-odd minute running-time – the vast number of technical wizards listed in the end titles makes for an exceedingly protracted 'credit crawl', one which unfortunately doesn't even bother to provide patient viewers with even the most cursory of rewards for sticking around after the conclusion of the main action. A minor oversight, but perhaps typical of a project that consistently manages to miss the target: in comparison with 1 and 2, the jokes are that little bit flatter, the plot that bit clunkier, the character interactions that bit less sparky, the song interludes that bit less striking: first time round we got The Proclaimers and John Cale; second time Tom Waits and Nick Cave; now it's (ahem) Damien Rice and Wolfmother.

And then there's what could be regarded as the most troubling aspect of the entire series – namely its unquestioning acceptance of monarchy as the natural form of rule. The last two films have featured much debate and anguish over heirs and successions – without the barest whisper of a suggestion that the issue isn't who the next king (or queen) should be, but whether there should even be a king (or queen) at all. Nobody would want this fundamentally light-hearted, kid-oriented franchise to get bogged down in political debate, of course – and perhaps the monarchy-is-best angle is another aspect of the Shrek picture's consistent strain of (mildly Monty Python-flavoured, or more precisely Spamalot-ish) Anglophilia. But would it do any harm for the downtrodden peoples of Shrek-land to be allowed a glimpse of democracy next time? That way, everyone might just get their happily-ever-after, after all…

Neil Young
25th June, 2007

SHREK THE THIRD : [6/10] : USA 2007 : Chris MILLER* : 93 mins (BBFC timing)
seen at Empire cinema, Gate complex, Newcastle-upon-Tyne (UK), 25th June 2007 – press show

* Raman HUI is officially credited as the film's "co-director"