Third time's the charmless for Shrek franchise

May 16, 2007 at 4:00 am
Coming out of Shrek the Third, I asked the two smart preteen girls I had in tow what they had liked about the picture. Projectile vomiting and multiple farts, they said promptly, best Shrek ever. Ordinarily I'm not big on poop and flatulence, but in this instance I sympathized — there's not much else to get excited about in this gaseous, overstuffed, prime case of sequel fatigue. Kids have all kinds of capacities, and you can either aim low — or tell them a story. Even several stories, as most movies for kids do these days, and as the first two in the Shrek franchise did with charm and wit. I loved them both, even though Shrek 2 was so anxiously freighted with grown-up cultural references and in-jokes, it scarcely seemed like a kids' movie at all.

Shrek the Third is directed by Chris Miller and co-written by Miller with three other writers (bad sign) from a story by Andrew Adamson, who helmed the first two movies. Miller was head of story on Shrek 2, but I see no story at all in its sequel, unless you count a few haggard plotlines limping along on parallel tracks and colliding by dint of artless intercutting. As for our stinky ogre, he grows flabbier by the sequel. For all their good nature, Shrek one and two had real bite, and Mike Myers brought a fine crankiness to the big green Glaswegian. But let it be remembered that this soft-hearted fellow began life as the fiercely unlovable, strictly non-cuddly creation of children's writer William Steig, and though he ended up falling in love with an ogress every bit as repulsive as he, one thing the career misanthrope never got over was his profound antipathy for children. Well, forget that: Nothing more hateful than rote paternal ambivalence, culled from many a current Alternadad memoir, is on display in Shrek the Third, where we find our hero reeling not only from the death of his froggy father-in-law and the prospect of running the kingdom of Far Far Away in his stead, but the news that the lovely Fiona is great with child.

What to do in the face of such crisis but take to the road with the usual small circle of friends (Donkey and Puss in Boots are back, with what little charisma this charmless movie can muster) and muscle through the action sequences while shoe-horning in a new character designed to drag the middle-school demographic away from its iPods and into the multiplex? I doubt it will work, even with Justin Timberlake voicing the nerdy youth whom Shrek wants to put on the throne in place of his socially retarded self. A feeble father-son dynamic ensues as the two sit by a campfire and swap tales of their own bad dads before rousing themselves to self-help against the usurper Prince Charming, with the aid of the usual round of gingerbread cookies and wooden boys, plus a few new fairy-tale staples. The movie wakes up briefly when a posse of Disney princesses turn feminist toxic avengers. It's one thing to introduce some much-needed acid into the flaccid Disney canon (and poke a competitor in the eye). But for the rest, when Shrek the Third isn't drowning in psychobabble, it's disfigured by atonal nastiness — the death of King Harold, a flawed hero very dear to the hearts of the movie's youngest viewers, is handled as farce — in place of the off-the-cuff gay wit that kept Shreks one and two pulsing along.

Bolstered by fart jokes, mass marketing and the usual flood of tie-ins, Shrek the Third will surely take in its usual bundle at the international box office. But that doesn't make the movie a success, even with millions of dollars' worth of up-to-the-minute animation. Like many another shoddy sequel, this one founders not only on the difficulty of extending a franchise beyond its natural life, but also on the unbearable strain of juggling a bunch of target demographics at once. Blinded by avarice and all out of ideas, once again Hollywood can't tell when enough is way more than enough.