It’s a tall order to maintain any sort quality over a series of sequels, or even just to the first sequel. You’ve got to give audiences exactly what they liked about the first film while offering up something new and different. That’s a tall order once; four times is usually just asking for trouble. The “Shrek” franchise has managed to sidestep that by being strictly mediocre to begin with, so it hasn’t taken a lot of effort or luck to stay there while they keep offering up bland puddings of a film like “Shrek Forever After.”
If I’m honest, I’ve never really gotten the “Shrek” appeal. They’re not particularly witty and the central conceit of warped fairy tales, while offering promise, has never really been engaged for more than cheap, obvious gags that wore thin by the time the first film was over. That being said, the sequels have each managed to reach “Shrek’s” particular brand of low-hanging fruit without much trouble and if you do enjoy them then “Shrek Forever After” is probably your cup of tea.
The main attraction (attraction isn’t really the right word where “Shrek” is concerned but its close enough for government work) for each of the sequels has been the introduction of new fairy tale characters and elements and their reinterpretation in Shrek’s semi-adult context. This is where the series has offered its best dividends, sometimes surprisingly so like Antonio Banderas’ Puss In Boots, and the new iteration is no different.
This time around we get Rumpelstiltskin, a wily purveyor of magical contracts who’s held a grudge ever since control of the kingdom of Far Far Away was snatched out of his hands at the last moment when Shrek rescued Fiona from the tower in the first film. When he tricks Shrek into erasing his own existence he finally gets everything he ever wanted in the shape of a devastated kingdom ruled by him and his coven of broomstick wielding witches.
What real humor and imagination “Shrek Forever After” has is entirely in Rumple’s hands, from his giant be-toothed duck to the variety of wigs he uses to match his mood, like his Angry Wig.
On the other side of the coin is Shrek himself, who has never been particularly funny, and at last the filmmakers have started to realize it. He’s the straight man in his strange fairy tale world (a very strange place to force Mike Meyers into, but there you have it), who has consistently been the unwilling, often unwitting, voice of adult responsibility as he has moved from carefree bachelor to husband, king (briefly) and eventually father. All of that responsibility has finally caught up with him and like many men (or ogre’s, apparently) he’s starting to wonder where his youth has gone. Happily ever after, it turns out, is kind of dull.
That’s probably a bit more adult than a young audience is fully going to appreciate, which is supposed to be the draw of these kinds of movies–something for everyone–though in practice it comes out a little schizophrenic. Still, director Mike Mitchell (“Sky High”) and his writers manage to get some moments of real drama out of it, particularly once Shrek realizes that the only way to get his life back, in the long tradition of not valuing something till it’s gone, is to make Fiona fall in love with him again.
That’s about as much as you’ll get out of “Shrek Forever After” and it’s a lot less than it sounds on paper. The series has been going long enough that filmmakers have been reduced to reinventing the characters they’ve reinvented again (Ginger is now a gladiator who fights Animal Crackers for money) and throwing us into situations we’ve seen (Shrek and Donkey versus the Dragon, again) before. Sure, sequels are supposed to be the same but different, but this is taking it really, really literal. The pleasure, of course, is supposed to be seeing your familiar characters in a new context, acting slightly differently. If you really, really like the characters of “Shrek” there is probably some enjoyment to be had from that. Otherwise, you’re in for a long hour and a half. Outside of Rumpelstiltskin it’s not particularly funny, despite trying really, really hard.
It’s still not a huge drop in quality from the other “Shrek” films, but mainly because they tended to be so middling to begin with. “Shrek Forever After” is the latest in a long, mediocre tradition. What charms it does have can’t really compete with the charms it doesn’t have. It’s supposed to be the last in the series and it’s probably about time.