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"Shrek 2" Still an Ugly Duckling

While it is common with live action films, the notion of theatrical sequels remains a strange one to the world of animation. Only a handful have come to pass so far, most notably Pixar’s very clever and successful Toy Story 2, which is generally considered to have improved on the original. This example was apparently not lost on rival Dreamworks, who decided to establish their own CG franchise with the similarly popular Shrek. And the decision paid off in spades, with Shrek 2 becoming the highest grossing animated film of all time. According to the DVD cover it is also the “#1 Comedy of All Time,” but this boast bears further inspection.

ImageI didn’t get around to seeing the original Shrek in theaters, but I was impressed by the public’s fantastic admiration for it, and the notion of an unorthodox animated comedy that took shots at the Disney formula sounded very appealing. So I eagerly picked it up when it came out on video, prepared to be blown away. Unfortunately it turned out to be more of a mild breeze really. Yes it had some funny parts, but it wasn’t as consistently amusing or smoothly animated as Pixar films and it was just as cliché ridden as Disney films. So I approached Shrek 2 with a good bit of trepidation. Once again the buzz was deafening, and I wondered cautiously if Dreamworks might have a Toy Story 2 up their sleeve. Alas, they delivered another film that falls well short of its reputation. Shrek 2 is funnier and better looking than its predecessor, but the franchise remains unable to rise above mediocrity.

The sequel takes up where the original left off, with Shrek (Mike Myers) and Shrekette, er, Fiona (Cameron Diaz), head over heels in love. On returning from their honeymoon to the swamp they receive a message that Fiona’s parents are holding a royal ball to celebrate their nuptials. Although Shrek is wary of the prospect, he, Fiona, and Donkey (Eddie Murphy) set off for the kingdom of Far, Far Away. Fiona’s parents are not just a little bit horrified upon meeting their daughter’s husband, and the tension between the King (John Cleese) and the son-in-law spills over into tension between Shrek and Fiona and they become a bit estranged. Meanwhile the Fairy Godmother (Jennifer Saunders), magician extraordinaire, exerts pressure on the King to have Shrek “taken care of” so her son Prince Charming (Rupert Everett) can assume his rightful place as Fiona’s husband. The King somewhat reluctantly enlists the services of feared assassin Puss in Boots (Antonio Banderas) to off Shrek, but this gambit fails when Shrek and Puss become friends. Shrek considers that things will never go smoothly so long as he is an ugly ogre, so he steals a potion from the Godmother’s magic factory that makes him and Fiona human. The Godmother however, incensed at Shrek’s interference, gets the King to give Fiona another potion that will make her fall in love with the first person to kiss her, and sets her up with Charming for the ball. Shrek, Donkey, Puss, and other accomplices attempt to crash the party to set things right.

Shrek is once again the star of the picture, although he must share the screen with a large supporting cast this time. Myers again delivers an endearingly grumpy Scottish performance, but isn’t given much funny material to work with. Diaz is again blandly likeable, but her character has relatively little to do aside from nagging Shrek in the early going. Quite frankly I was again a bit hard pressed to find much sympathy for their troubled relationship. Call me old-fashioned, but watching them shave and break wind together really undermined any element of romance for my part. I understand they’re not supposed to be pretty, but surely some slight concession to attractiveness wouldn’t hurt. Murphy is irritating as ever as Donkey. To his credit, at one point Donkey indirectly refers to himself as an “annoying talking animal.” However, I suspect what the writers’ really meant was “annoying but also funny and loveable,” when in fact Donkey is nothing but immensely annoying. Once a master of varied comic delivery, here Murphy reduces 90% of his lines to a shrill shout. How did such a great comedian come to sink so low? I’m guessing the answer is spelled out with a large number of zeros.

As for the new cast, it is my great pleasure to inform you that Cleese has not lost a step, and I strongly congratulate this casting choice. His King is the film’s character highlight, and though most of his dialogue is made up of baffled reactions, he delivers them so expertly in that Fawlty Towers style that it’s a treat to hear. Saunders does an impressively evil turn as the conniving Godmother, even convincingly belting out a song. It’s a shame her character is saddled with a plethora of lame anachronisms such as ordering drive thru. Darth Vader’s agent wouldn’t even dare to bring that up. Everett is capably vain and slimy in a small part, and that brings us to Banderas, whose cocky, heroic, and cute Puss has been said to have stolen the show. Sure Banderas does his best to lend the character his powerful charisma, but after a promising intro he is reduced to wrestling with Donkey for generally odious sidekick cracks.

As the filmmakers point out at length in the commentary, the CGI animation has improved over the first movie. It is certainly much more complex, with far more detailed, living environments. However, I still find it a very mixed bag. Although the backgrounds are impressively rendered, the art design is a bit bland really, mostly a hodgepodge of tired fairy tale clichés. And as always with CGI, character animation remains a sore spot. I think that Dreamworks hurts itself by going for realistic human characters rather than the simplified cartoonish types that Pixar employs. The Queen, Charming, and Godmother in particular look cold, creepy, and lifeless rather than vibrant and engaging. Despite the large number of characters, there is nothing terribly distinctive about the character design apart from Shrek himself and Puss’s endearing close-up.

Whoever scored the film must be a big lover of 70s/80s pop music, because that accounts for at least two thirds of the soundtrack. I can’t say I’m complaining, as I greatly enjoyed most of it. The highlight had to be an updated rendition of Bonnie Tyler’s Footloose classic “Holding out for a Hero,” which really serves to heighten the drama during the climactic confrontation. The song shows up again in another version to begin the ending credits. Say goodbye to welfare checks Ms. Tyler!

Lest the reader think I didn’t get much enjoyment at all out of the film, I must note that it did get a few good laughs out of me. The trumpeter spontaneously breaking into the Hawaii Five-O theme was a zany touch. The King has a great moment when he goes to a seedy tavern trying to make contact with Puss. He leans over the counter to inquire about “the ugly stepsister,” only to have the hulking bartender turn around to reveal herself to be the very same, complete with mustache and voiced by Larry King! In the finale there’s some good fun with a giant gingerbread man Shrek has enlisted to get him inside the castle walls. With Shrek perched on its shoulder, the gingerbread man stomps menacingly toward the castle through the city streets, then abruptly stops to drink from the huge coffee cup atop a Starbucks shop. And in a great shot at a much lamer CGI movie from this year, Puss at one point declares, “I hate Mondays.”

As one would expect with such a box office sensation, the special features are stacked. The main menu is a great nod to the Brady Bunch credits, with all the Shrek characters expressing annoyance at Donkey. There are two commentaries, although these both obsess over animation details and oddly don’t include any cast members. There is a brief featurette with the cast heaping compliments on the film, a few analyzing the technical complexities of the animation, and one on the film’s score. For the kiddies there’s a fake medieval newspaper and some truly pointless games and musical activities. The highlight of the bonus materials, as heavily advertised, is the all new animated short “Far, Far Away Idol,” which is a play on, well, you can guess. All the movie characters of any significance get to cut loose with their favorite 80s or 90s pop tune while Simon tears them a new one. Although brief, some of the musical choices are pretty funny. You have to love Pinocchio doing the robot to Styx’s “Mr. Roboto.”

As is usually the case with sequels, Shrek 2 is really more of the same. If you loved the first Shrek, I’m sure you’ll love this one. For those who leaned toward indifference on the original, despite some improvements, I don’t think this is the film to make you a fan. There are just as many or more tedious clichés as there are fresh ideas, and too many long stretches without real laughs. The numerous pop culture references bode ill for the laugh count over time, particularly such tacky inclusions as a Joan Rivers cameo. However, the film does boast John Cleese, a few solid chuckles, and an impressive array of DVD features, so it would hardly be an unwarranted rental. The Shrek franchise still has a ways to go to reach the big time, but Shrek’s no quitter, and with a character that has become synonymous with more than one kind of green, you can rest assured Dreamworks won’t be either.

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