*Shrek Forever After (PG)
Carmike 10, Chapel Hills 15, Cinemark 16, Cinemark 16 IMAX, Hollywood Interquest, Tinseltown
Many of us have suspected it all along, but with Shrek Forever After, it becomes official: The Shrek film series is actually a sitcom.
Since time immemorial — OK, the late '70s — there has been at least one reliable signifier that a TV situation comedy has run out of ideas: the "fantasy episode." That would be the one that speculates, "What if these characters had never been born, or gotten married, or had that wacky misunderstanding in Season 2?" Actors love these because they can do something different with familiar characters — and viewers often hate them for the same reason.
The Shrek films are an interesting case, because audiences never seemed particularly fond of the characters. Sure, Antonio Banderas' goofy-suave Puss in Boots has fans, but do folks really adore Shrek, Fiona and Donkey? Or did the previous three Shrek films just have enough satisfying gags that the protagonists and plots were rendered somewhat irrelevant?
That may be the lesson to take away from the revitalized Shrek Forever After, which tosses our ogre friend into another homage to It's a Wonderful Life. Fuming about being domesticated by husband/dad responsibilities, Shrek (Mike Myers) fantasizes about returning to his old, fearsome self. And the devious elf Rumplestiltskin (Walt Dohrn), who once lost his chance to steal the kingdom of Far Far Away thanks to Shrek's rescue of Fiona (Cameron Diaz), offers Shrek one day from his carefree past. The catch: Once that day ends, the world will appear as though Shrek never existed.
That world has its intrigues: Rumplestiltskin is now the despotic king; Fiona, never freed by "true love's kiss," has become the freedom-fighting leader of the ogres; Donkey (Eddie Murphy) ... well, he's still annoying; and Puss, in the most amusing development, has become Fiona's obese house-tabby. Naturally, Shrek will eventually realize that he has been liberated not just from the entanglements of the earlier movies, but also from their pleasures.
Shrek Forever After, on the other hand, definitely benefits from that liberation. This is a friskier, less bombastic Shrek, one that has fun with moments like Shrek having become such a celebrity that bothersome kids ask him to "do the roar." Fiona's hardened personality — formed by being required to rescue herself — works as well, providing tension to Shrek's attempts to re-woo her. And there's good stuff involving Rumplestiltskin, a would-be Napoleon voiced with enthusiasm by animator Dohrn.
But mostly, Shrek Forever After eases back on the smug referential humor that has driven the series. From day one it was built on swipes, often more sad than clever, at Disney's fanciful fairy tales. Though there are still a few of the expected anachronisms — an ogre (The Office's Craig Robinson) who craves chimichangas, or a trailer park for witches — the humor isn't generally about pop-culture nudging. I can't even recall a single fart gag.
The downside is that screenwriters Josh Klausner and Darren Lemke sometimes don't know what should provide the chuckles. There are more smiles than belly laughs, leading to something that often works better as an adventure — thanks to solid action work from director Mike Mitchell — than as a comedy.
Will those who embraced the more raucous Shrek of films past be disappointed? Possibly. For those who won't find a change of personality any great loss, however, it's a pleasant surprise. This is one sitcom that actually needed to jump the shark, since it seems to have found firmer ground on the other side.