What's this? A "Shrek" sequel that doesn't abuse the privilege of satire? Crams the fairy tale jokes to a far, far away place? Trusts a story will lead the way, not a runaway boulder of gas-based humor and misfired double entendres? It's a new "Shrek," and I'm stunned to write I had so much fun with it.
With the king now dead, it's up to Shrek (voiced by Mike Myers) to assume the throne. Trouble is, he doesn't want it; only a life in the swamp with wife Fiona (Cameron Diaz) will do. To help find a new ruler, Shrek takes off with Donkey (Eddie Murphy) and Puss in Boots (Antonio Banderas) to find Arthur (Justin Timberlake), Fiona's teenage cousin and the next in line for the crown. While the boys are out of town, Prince Charming (Rupert Everett) decides to strike back at the kingdom and finish off Shrek for good.
Of course, this burst of entertainment value didn't come entirely without warning. 2004's "Shrek 2" also showed a hunger to abandon past comedy transgressions, taking huge steps away from the cancerous funny bone of the first installment to 'roid up the flippancy and hustle in creative new characters who were better suited for deeper laughs.
"Third" shows a maturity this series has never investigated before and I fear some might see it as fatigue. Directors Chris Miller and Raman Hui have elected to try for a story-based tone for the second sequel and the change is interesting to say the least. The "Shrek" adventures will never be defined by their dramatic immediacy but "Third' gets close to a consistent tone and more tempered bits of comedy. The film slows down to try and build some characterization and I appreciated the change of pace.
That's not to say the sillyheart air of the franchise has escaped. "Third" still clowns around big time, now using the horde of personalities for jokes instead of strip-mining classic fairy tales to nudge-nudge, wink-wink the script into a puddle of poison.
The world has been erected and "Third" takes delight in the work that was accomplished in the last two films. As in "Shrek 2," the best moments are in the sidekick areas, with Donkey and Puss in Boots stealing every scene they can worm their way into. In "Third," it's a tighter fit for the duo, but worth every moment. Extra sass is provided by the introduction of Merlin (Eric Idle), reimagined here as new age healer in sandals with a tenuous grip on his old magical ways.
As expected, the voice cast is having a grand old time behind the microphones and the directors use that energy wisely. Now, with the pressure of audience acceptance behind them, "Third" feels relaxed, even a smidge carefree, allowing the actors to enjoy their performances instead of wheezing to catch up with the disposable humor that ruled previous installments.
Also showing marked improvement is the animation, which has taken on a new reality through tech upgrades. "Third" doesn't mess with the visual blueprint, but advances the character expressions and movement. The best example is Shrek himself, who looks at times to be a photo-real creature. This is still a cartoon, but it's inching closer to a CG polish that's baffling to process.
"Shrek the Third" is no all-around picnic; someone needs to write a third act for these films that doesn't have the thematic weight of a hummingbird, but I laughed away the 80 minutes with ease. Now free of the burden of having to be the hippest ogre in the swamp, this franchise has finally found some footing to manufacture something beyond a cruel lump of groans.
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