"Shrek the Third" – No More! Please, No More!
Suit up, gentle readers. The following words will be as fair as I can make them, but I definitely cannot promise you that they will be kind.
In 2001, we were given a film that its makers originally intended to stand alone. As in, no planned sequels. Shrek – or maybe we should call it Shrek the First – did not exist as a marketing figure or a symbol of all things family-friendly or such. In fact, the whole schtick was that he was an oddball, an aberrant element of the world that surrounded him who had a specific issue and a specific story to tell. That story turned out to make for a really, really great film. But to the everlasting dismay of this fan of the first Shrek and probably many others, the film was such a huge hit that it no longer was about that specific story. Now Shrek, by virtue of his circumstances, had to start producing as much green as he wears on his skin. I’m not going to do a whole play-by-play of my feelings and theories about the first film, or the second for that matter. To simply sum it up, I find the first one utterly masterful. The second one I find well-done and competent, but I object to its story’s existence and arc and so I think of it as being fairly unnecessary.
In the even less necessary third part, we get a plot that practically seems already aware of how subordinate it is to the stories that it follows. Shrek the Third‘s main villain is Prince Charming (Rupert Everett), whom you might remember as the junior badguy from Shrek 2. This might give you a sense of what the immediate problem with him is. He persuades all the drunken and miserable villains that we saw languishing at the bar in the first sequel that they all deserved a “Happily Ever After” of their own, and he attempts to wage what could be considered a kind of war on Far Far Away. Unfortunately, Charming is the same guy you remember from the first sequel. That means he’s exceedingly lame and a pathetic mama’s boy, and this time he doesn’t even have his malicious mother around to actually drive the conflict. (Whatever else Shrek 2 lacked in villainous motivation and reason, at least it let the Fairy Godmother spit a hell of a lot of venom.) Charming is just too weak a threat to hold this film, and yet Shrek the Third has almost no choice but to put him in that role despite the film even knowing how dopey he is. His final plan, which I won’t reveal, isn’t funny enough to justify how sorry it all is, and he seems to gain ground against the heroes only because the plot’s so threadbare that it makes about as much sense as anything else.
This leads to one of the main complaints I have with Shrek the Third, which is that it just doesn’t work very well. I objected to the existence of the second film, but I couldn’t deny that it was at least put together well enough. I laughed, but I wasn’t moved; the first film did both. This third film, save a few sporadic chuckles, did neither. The comedy has gotten lazy in the Shrek universe, with a lot of cheap ogres-are-awkward gags that would be funnier if it didn’t seem so repetitive a comedic concept from two films prior. And let’s face it—one of the things that was funny about the first Shrek wasn’t what Shrek couldn’t do, but what he could do, despite outward appearances. In an even more flattening development, the oddball element of Shrek has gone away and now everybody in Far Far Away loves the big lug. This is as comedy-killing a twist as the one in the first Austin Powers sequel where everybody got used to the out-of-his-era Austin Powers all of a sudden. It’s as if the world of the film was forced to incorporate the popularity of Shrek from our real world. Worst of all, though, there are just too many characters. Of all of the ones introduced and incorporated, Cheri Oteri’s self-absorbed Snow White is the funniest. But Regis Philbin is there for seemingly one line, and Eric Idle’s Merlin felt like worthwhile effort applied towards a half-baked notion of a character. A character betrayal that happens midway through the story couldn’t have been as shocking as it was supposed to be due to the character being so very thin, and then the character doesn’t have the chance to earn the stripes either as a villain or a redemptive soul. So what the hell was the point?
Those of you who got into this review anticipating my negative feelings have undoubtedly been waiting for the moment when I rip into baby-faced boy-bander Timberlake. I’m not going to tear the boy a new one for simply existing; I’ve never listened to his music, solo or group, and I don’t hate celebrities simply for being famous. I will say this, though: Arthur/Artie in Shrek the Third was a huge miscalculation. First off, his character brings Shrek into painfully suburban material. The high school sequence is nothing but old, bad jokes about high schools that we’ve heard a thousand times over and are only being shot through a Medieval Times prism. It was painful to watch. As for Artie himself, his problem as a character is that he doesn’t seem to actually exist in the world of Shrek. For the audience, it’s more like watching some average teenager from the real world interact with a character he barely recognizes as real. It’s not that Artie is meta; that’d be too interesting. He just has no stakes to him. And, of course, Justin Timberlake’s performance doesn’t help. I’ll give Timberlake the credit of sounding at least interested in delivering the lines, as opposed to somebody just mindlessly standing in front of a microphone. But the fact is that he doesn’t have a (speaking) voice worth listening to, and he does nothing to plus the already-dull characterization of this little dweeb. It’s not just that he’s not provided an interesting personality, but his story is like the rest of the film in that it doesn’t have enough heft to be a believable progression of one’s mindset and situation. There’s no understanding why Artie makes any change in his opinion regarding being king, but we are expected to buy it anyway.
Shrek the Third isn’t the worst film in the world, obviously. The technical elements are all there, but on the other hand, are you really watching Shrek the Third so you can marvel at the shaders on the rocks and trees? And for what it’s worth, the Shrek films’ greatest design weaknesses have always been their human figures, and Shrek the Third packs the cast full of too many of them without ever solving the problem. There are moments in the sincere passages of this film when I was reminded of the better and more insightful moments of the first film, although all the previous issues I listed get in the way of these scenes being anything more than a fleeting reminder of what quality sounds like. Donkey and Puss get a couple of laughs, although not nearly as much as each of them had in their first appearances; anybody remember the first film when Donkey actually had an important role in the story? I worried after I saw Shrek 2 that it was perhaps a worse film than I thought it was, and that my very large love of the first film was keeping me from calling it on its crap. But really, it was a better film with better gags, and neither stands up to the original’s wit and power. Shrek the Third proved to me that there really is such a thing as a bad Shrek film, and while it’s not a blight on humanity, it sure isn’t any fun anymore. This is the franchise that should never have been, because the first film was its own thing. Not every story has more to it after it hits its first The End, Hollywood. Maybe the rampant sequelitis will stop someday; however, if the early grosses are any indication, it won’t end with this sequel. Sigh.