When last we saw Shrek and Fiona, they had just left the kingdom of Far Far Away with their three ogre triplets in tow. Shrek had rejected the throne and insisted on returning to his swampy ogre lair. But as Shrek Forever After begins, he finds that even an ogre’s swamp is not his castle once he becomes a parent.
We’ve all been there.
Now a domesticated ogre daddy, Shrek has had it up to here with diaper duty and the monotony of marital bliss. He longs for his lost bachelorhood when he was free to fart in his own mud bath and scare the crap out of everyone. So he signs a dubious contract with the shady Rumpelstiltskin to return to his old life.
This “husband on a bachelor bender” is a familiar trope within the genre of the mid-life crisis, buddy/bromance films but it’s not that common for an animated kid’s movie. For that matter, Faustian bargains and parallel universes are not concepts that many young children will grasp. Of course, kids aren’t going to get the kitsch factor of monsters gamboling to Karen Carpenter tunes either.
But this has always been the secret ingredient of the Shrek franchise: keeping the ticket-purchasing parents happy while providing enough age-appropriate silliness for youngsters. What the littlest kids will get is that Puss in Boots has gotten comically fat, that baby ogre pee in 3-D is really funny, and that love comes in all forms. In Shrek Forever After we get all this.
The Shrek movies have always been near and dear to my heart: When my daughter was deep into her Disney princess phase, she took a detour to appreciate Fiona, the feisty, zaftig and green alterna-princess who could karate kick her way out of her own pickles.
In 2001, Shrek popularized the fractured fairy tale, a genre that appealed to hip parents who preferred irreverence to sentimentality and favored post-modernity to old-fashioned storylines. It was a welcome change to the spoon-fed Cinderella propaganda our generation grew up on.
Shrek showed there’s more than one road to a happy ending. In Shrek 1, it was the ogre – not the prince – who saves the princess. Love wasn’t at first sight, “happily ever after” entailed substance over beauty, and sometimes Prince Charming can actually be a jerk – all important life lessons.
In this installment, with Shrek AWOL, Fiona saves herself, and as the uber-warrior mommy ogress battling the corrupt Rumpelstiltskin regime, she can rope up a dragon with the same finesse she shows when swaddling a baby.
To make the most of the 3-D wow-factor, kicking bad-guy butt is a big part of Forever After. With a full-on ogre rebellion involving spiky, medieval weaponry flung against throngs of wicked witches, the action hardly ever quits.
Not to mention, this Mike Mitchell-directed Shrek Forever After serves up ample sight gags and one-liners but it’s a little less hilarious than Shrek 1 and 2. (Three was a low point.) Many of the most enjoyable villains from Shreks past are gone – John Lithgow’s snively Lord Farquaad, Rupert Everett’s smarmy Prince Charming and my personal favorite: Jennifer Saunders’s duplicitous Fairy Godmother, the queen of meddling mothering.
Forever After’s new characters are less thrilling. Walt Dohrn voices the evil-bratty Rumpelstiltskin, who’s something of a cross between Farquaad and Helena Bonham Carter’s Red Queen from Alice in Wonderland. His underlings are a squadron of Oz-inspired wicked witches who are pretty funny in their incongruity, but the voice talents of Kristen Schaal, Meredith Vieira and Kathy Griffin are underutilized.
Bottom line: It’s probably a good time for the Shrek train to stop. Next stop: Puss In Boots, whose feature film spin-off arrives next year.