With the frog-king (Cleese) dying, it dawns on Shrek (Myers) that hes next in line to be monarch something hes keen to avoid. When he sets off to track down the only other living heir, Fionas cousin Artie (Timberlake), Prince Charming (Everett) unite
Material’s veryimportant. Ask any CGI animator. Sure, they have to force their AMD Opteron processors to conjure up all that flashy ‘ooh’ and ‘aah’ stuff, like, say swishy-whizzy magic-spell effects, or the impressive orange glow of dragonflame, but if you can’t make the texture of Fiona’s shimmery dress capture the light properly, if the audience don’t truly feel they can reach out and caress that silky fabric, then the animators might as well all shut down their DL145 ProLiant servers, pack up their HP nx6125 notebooks (“based,” it says in the film’s fascinating production notes, “on AMD Turion 64x dual-core mobile technology to streamline a variety of production activities”) and go home.
Yes, material’s very important. Ask any screenwriter. Like, say, the team behind Shrek The Third, tasked by DreamWorks to come up with a second sequel to the hit movie that was based on a single short story by one William Steig. Steig gave previous directors Andrew Adamson and Vicky Jenson great material in the tale of a grumpy ogre who reluctantly takes up the cause of banished fairy-tale creatures. Adamson and his crew stretched it satisfyingly for a box-office-busting sequel, and then passed it on to new boy Chris Miller before disappearing, with a laugh and wave, into a wardrobe. And now Miller’s been left to discover that even good material can only stretch so far before it starts to tear.
If we’re honest, fun as they were, neither of the previous Shreks offered particularly durable central story-threads. Whenever Shrek (Mike Myers) is sent away on a quest – be it to rescue a princess, find a potion or, in the case of this movie, seek out a royal heir – it’s never more than a case of brief, breezy there-and-back-again, with one or two minor diversions (usually some kind of ambush in a forest), plus perhaps a campfire-side heart-to-heart, during which the irascible ogre will at least partially come to terms with whichever self-doubt that’s plaguing him – this time his confidence in himself as a father. But where the films excelled was in their tuning of the background noise, making stars of support characters. Hand on your heart: do you remember spluttering a guffaw at anything Shrek or Fiona (Cameron Diaz) said? No, it was Donkey’s (Eddie Murphy) frantic gabbing, or Puss In Boots’ (Antonio Banderas) dilated-pupils cute act, or the stumbling blind mice, or the gingerbread-man torture scenes that had us laughing out loud.
So it would be somewhat unfair to criticise Shrek The Third for its uninspired main plot (Shrek goes questing while the bad guys – Charming (Rupert Everett), Captain Hook (Ian McShane) some talking trees and a cyclops – get together and decided to seize //their// happily ever after). It’s the fact that the big laughs we expect from the small characters are so damn //sparse// that’s unforgivable. Not that Shrek The Third is without its moments. As Fiona’s amphibian father, John Cleese performs one of the most hilariously protracted and overwrought death scenes you’ll ever see, while elsewhere the gingerbread man is granted a superb life-flashes-before-eyes sequence.
The film’s most telling fault is the fact that it simply doesn’t know what to do with either Donkey or Puss, who ran away with the first and second movies respectively. Here, they don’t even have anywhere to run //to//, and the desperate scrabbling for some Donkey/Puss action results in something that’s less of a brainwave than a mind-ripple: as the result of a misfired spell, they… swap… bodies! Donkey talks with Puss’ voice! Puss talks with Donkey’s! The comic possibilities are, frankly, limited. Donkey/Puss’s tail fluffs up and he hisses; Puss/Donkey cracks wise about being relegated to second sidekick and the joys of licking himself. By the obligatory end-credits number, in which they do a funky disco duet and dance like tipsy uncles around the big names, you find yourself experiencing a most curious emotion: actually feeling //embarrassed// for cartoon characters.
Similarly threadbare are the pop-culture references and satirical swipes that peppered Shreks 1 and 2, while the few that are present are just too vaguely aimed. Prince Charming, it seems, is merely driven by a craving for celebrity, which culminates in a suitably atrocious stage-musical; the Eric Idle-voiced Mr Merlin (the perpetrator of the body-swap farrago) is a daffy, New Age mumbo-jumbo-dribbling type who hard-peddles wacky group therapies; Worcestershire High – the school at which Artie (Justin Timberlake) studies – should provide plenty of jabs at any number of teenage subcultures but instead we get a pair of dorks playing a boardgame, a token jock and some girls who chew bubblegum and say, “like, totally,” lots. Hell, even the groan-inducing puns which have always appeared on Far, Far Away’s street signs are few and far, far between (the only one we can recall is ‘Versarchery’).
And what of that other material? The kind woven from pixels? From Fiona and her fellow princess’ togs right up to all the aforementioned ‘ooh’ and ‘ahh’ business, Dreamworks Animation once again affirms itself as Pixar’s worthiest CG ‘toon competitor in terms of striving for artful photo-realism. Although, in this pinsharp, so-perfect-it’s-like-giving-your-eyes-blow-jobs HD era, we’ve now reached the point where bold stylistic choices should impress more than simply straining for the clearest reality xerox, and Shrek isn’t really in a position to do that. Its faintly stylised human forms, with their big hands, small feet, long faces and invariably rectangular jaws, do remain disconcertingly mannequinish. No one’s yet done stylised humans as well as Pixar did with The Incredibles, but then Shrek is unfortunately limited by keeping its characters’ look consistent with pre-Incredibles technology and aesthetics.
Question is will the ankle-biting target audience notice any of Shrek The Third’s shortcomings? Probably not. Scenes flit jauntily by, allowing just enough time for a punchline to settle; the pace is fleetfooted and the action suitably slapsticky. Early on, Miller and his team cause a stumbling, tumbling Shrek, restricted by a ludicrous wig, frill and corset, to send a royal function literally up in flames; and later they channel Raising Arizona with a sequence involving a gurgling, burbling multiplicity of innocently destructive Shrek-babies (expect the cuddly toy versions to fly off the toystore shelves). There’s farting, there’s belching and there’s plenty of silly high voices. Plus, moral-wise, kids will find the ‘be true to thyself’ message simple enough to swallow.
So it will prove sufficiently diverting for the little’uns. But let’s remember that the Shrek franchise hasn’t so far reaped more than $1 billion worldwide by simply catering to the kiddies: you need to keep the people who pay for the tickets happy, too. And with the material now stretched so thin, there’s no dressing up the fact that this third installment really does let its older audience down.
Another summer threequel, another case of slipping standards not so much in the visuals, which remain predictably impressive, but in the all-important gag rate. To waste both Donkey and Puss is a crime