It has been nine long years now since Shrek rolled into theaters and become a surprise smash for the then-upstart animation division of Dreamworks SKG; they'd had some minor success with Antz and The Prince of Egypt, but the tale of the not-so-rotten ogre became their first unquestionable box-office bonanza, and the first indication that the young studio might serve as genuine competition for Disney and Pixar. In fact, for grown-ups, part of the fun of that first film was in its blatant raspberries at the mythology of Disney's fairy tale films--given extra oomph by the fact that Dreamworks co-founder Jeffrey Katzenberg was a disgruntled former Disney employee (the villainous character of "Lord Farquaad" was reportedly based on his former boss Michael Eisner). The original film was inventively animated, well-voiced (particularly by Mike Myers and Eddie Murphy), and, most of all, funny as hell--from the shots at Disney to the pop-culture parodies to its own warped character humor. Three years later, Shrek 2 offered more of the same, and was mostly successful; the story didn't have much of anywhere new to go, but the addition of Puss in Boots (the only purposefully funny thing Antonio Banderas has ever done) gave the film a big boost.
But by the time Shrek the Third came around in 2007, the series was showing its age; the pop culture references had grown tired from overuse not only in that series but in its animated contemporaries, and ditto the fairy tale send-ups (thanks to junk like Hoodwinked! and Happly N'Ever After). By the third film, the worn-out characterizations and strained humor had the feel of a sitcom that had been on the air too long.
The new fourth installment, Shrek Forever After (and I can assure you that's the title, in spite of all those TV spots for Shrek: The Final Chapter), fails as well, but in a completely different way; while Shrek the Third, try as it might, just wasn't funny, they're not even trying this time. To continue the TV metaphor, the new film plays like a "very special episode," only instead of Arnold meeting a kid-toucher or Freddie "Boom Boom" Washington developing a drug problem, Shrek and Fiona have marital issues. Yes, really. They've decided to treat these cartoon ogres and animals as serious characters with real problems. Okey dokey!
The story begins with a flashback to a sidebar from the events of the first film, in which we discover that Fiona's royal parents (the underutilized John Cleese and Julie Andrews) nearly signed away their kingdom to Rumpelstiltskin (Walt Dohrn) to save their daughter--and stopped short only when word reached them that Shrek had rescued her. We then jump ahead to find Shrek (Myers) and Fiona (Cameron Diaz) happily raising their baby triplets, who are approaching their first birthday (their domestic monotony is conveyed in a clever montage which shows some unfulfilled promise). But Shrek somewhat resents the cuddly, likable ogre he's been transformed into; he longs for the days when he inspired fear rather than fandom. Rumpelstiltskin overhears the couple's falling out, and approaches Shrek with a deal: Shrek will give the deal maker a day from his childhood, and in exchange, we will have a "day off" to be a real ogre again. It's only after the deal is signed that he discovers the day he's given away was the day of his birth, meaning he now lives in a world where he's never been born.
Yep, the movie becomes It's a Shrek-derful Life.
But the fact that writers Josh Klausner and Darren Lemke approach the material with the dourness of a von Trier movie can't be the only explanation for the lack of laughs. Part of the blame lays with Murphy and Myers, who both ceased being funny years ago; the little spins that they used to be able to put on pedestrian lines no longer make us chuckle. Neither does Dohrn, whose characterization of Rumpelstiltskin is singularly annoying and obnoxious; from an entertainment standpoint, he's roughly the film's equivalent to the title character in Myers's last Austin Powers movie, Goldmember. Banderas's suddenly-pudgy Puss gets a few laughs, but the only consistent source of comedy is Craig Robinson (from The Office and Hot Tub Time Machine), and he only gets a half-dozen or so lines. Thankfully, the filmmakers appear to have put the kibosh on the pop-culture references, but without them, there's not much left to these movies; most of the comic set pieces fall flat (particularly the painful business with the Pied Piper).
There are flashes of innovation (the climactic sequence with the corresponding chains is fairly inventive), and the animation remains terrific--detailed and life-like. But in general, Shrek Forever After is a lackluster effort, short on fun and shorter on laughs. Hopefully those peculiar, mistitled ads are correct, and this is in fact the "final chapter" for Shrek; the series has already overstayed its welcome.