Thursday, May 20, 2010

'Shrek" loses a bit off the old ogre fastball

For Shrek, domestic bliss isn't all that it's cracked up to be.

Shrek Forever After is being billed as the final installment of this financially lucrative but artistically faltering series. The addition of 3-D doesn't do much to elevate this helping of Shrek, and the movie fails to reach the levels of enjoyment that marked the first (and still best) of the bunch.

By now, the irreverent approach to fairy tales has lost much of its freshness, and the mix-and-match post-modernism of the series - Pinocchio is liable to pop up alongside the Three Little Pigs -- has gone a bit flat, as has Shrek's life.

It's that life - mired in the monotony of domestic routine - that provides the story with its springboard. It seems that Shrek (Mike Meyers) has become a middle-class, middle-aged guy. He and Fiona (Cameron Diaz) have three kids, triplets. Donkey (Eddie Murphy) is still around, as is Puss in Boots (Antonio Banderas).

Shrek also has become a show business fixture. Crowds of adoring fans long to hear him roar; they love his signature yowl. Shrek's a cuddly staple of the pop-cultural scene. His home, once a forest sanctuary, has turned into a tour stop. It's enough to drive an ogre crazy.

In an effort to escape the middle-age doldrums, Shrek deserts his family during the kids' birthday bash. He races off to the woods, where he encounters Rumpelstiltskin (Walt Dohrn), a conniving fairy-tale figure who's clearly up to no good.

In the Grimm fairy tales, Rumpelstiltskin bargained with a miller's daughter who was trying to spin gold from straw. In this version, the dwarf bargains with both Fiona's parents and with Shrek, offering each of them a much-cherished prize - at a price, of course.

All of this leads to Shrek veering off into an alternate version of his life in which his "ogreness" is restored. Of course, there's that price. Fiona no longer recognizes our big green hero. To further complicate matters, she has assembled a group of ogres to fight Rumpel. Poor Shrek. He must figure out how to return home and reclaim the life that, as it turns out, wasn't so bad after all. Or as a friend used to say, Shrek -- like all wayward movie heroes -- is left to overcome his bitterness and re-discover the true meaning of Christmas, so to speak.

The movie's 3-D underscores the fact that the franchise has reached the point where it needs add-ons to prosper, and prosper it probably will. By now, Shrek has become both an entertainment and a pop-cultural obligation. Turnstiles will spin.

But even the addition of flying witches can't quite get Shrek airborne. He's not only middle-aged, but also middle-of-the-road. The movie seems less a tribute to the anarchic spirit in which fairy tale wisdom once mingled with cartoon chaos than a monument to itself.

Say this, though, the filmmakers provide an affectionate farewell to characters who've earned a place in the animated landscape, and, viewed as a whole, the Shrek franchise must be credited with inspiring a fair amount of creativity and humor. It's probably accurate to say that this final chapter, though suffering from a case of the blahs, will do little to change the generally favorable impression that will keep the Shrek movies circulating on DVD for some time to come - if not forever after.

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