Shrek Forever After, the fourth and allegedly final Shrek movie, finds our ogre hero living in 3-D but frustrated with his mundane existence as husband, father of three and living legend. Shrek (voiced by Mike Myers) longs to be a real ogre again. He wants to see villagers fleeing before him in genuine terror, instead of treating his home like a tourist attraction. In one of the movie's better gags, a plump little boy keeps insisting, in a helium-inflected growl, that Shrek "do the roar." Shrek wants not to "do" the roar, but to really feel the roar. He wants his old life back, if only for a day.
This being a fairy tale, albeit a modern one, there is a way to make that happen involving a magical contract proffered by that master of fairyland deceit, Rumpelstiltskin. And this being a Shrek film, the resulting adventure is once again lively and clever, although its creative underpinnings a sort of flea-market pastiche of antique fairy tales, vintage vaudeville and contemporary pop culture seem rather more shabby than chic. When the first Shrek came out, in 2001, DreamWorks' use of that that same triptych of source materials, liberally sprinkled with jabs at Disney, seemed in and of itself original. Nine years later, it's hard not to notice how everything in the movie comes from somewhere else nicely rearranged, but far from fresh.
That said, sitting down to a fourth Shrek feels no more objectionable than sitting down to the second, or the third neither of which I recalled in any detail as I sat down to watch this one, despite having seen them in the theater and then multiple times in the living room. This movie doesn't attempt, as the other three did, to advance Shrek's life story, such as it is. It appears to be driven more by capitalism than any storytelling urge, and steers away from a linear narrative in order to circle back to the first movie for a sort of It's a Wonderful Life diversion in which Shrek sees what things in the kingdom of Far Far Away would be like without him.
We learn in prologue that, in the days before Shrek rescued his beloved Princess Fiona (Cameron Diaz) from a dragon-guarded tower, Rumpelstiltskin (Walt Dohm) was this close to convincing her parents to sign away their kingdom to free her. Shrek foiled the plot by saving her. Years later, though, Rumpelstiltskin still wants that kingdom and at a crucial moment in Shrek's midlife crisis, he shows up with a sympathetic shoulder, too many eyeball martinis and a contract that offers Shrek a day to be an ogre again in exchange for a day from Shrek's past. Shrek is too far into his cups to realize that it could be the day he was born.
He is soon trapped in an alternate reality in this week of the Lost finale, let's call it a sideways world in which Fiona has sprung herself from the dragon's keep and blossomed into the ferocious leader of an ogre rebellion Joan of Arc meets Lara Croft. Donkey (Eddie Murphy, still funny) is a slave to a crew of ogre-hunting wicked witches. And Puss in Boots (Antonio Banderas) is so fat, he can't fit into his boots anymore. And everything hinges again on true love's kiss. Whatever: my motivation for seeing Shrek Forever After rested squarely on the shoulders of that fat cat. He was the cream I was looking for, and Banderas delivers, as usual.
But something did interfere with the simple pleasures of a corpulent cat. The Shrek sequels have always served as handy time capsules of the pop culture zeitgeist. Just as Shrek the Third had Justin Timberlake guest-star after he brought sexy back, Shrek Forever After features two recent breakthrough stars, Mad Men's Jon Hamm and Glee's Jane Lynch, playing respectively right-hand man to warrior Fiona and a prominent wicked witch. This kind of timeliness amuses adults but rarely does anything for kids.
Sending Shrek into George Bailey territory does even less for them. "I have some confusions," my child kept saying after attending a screening with me. Me too. I kept thinking, so, in sideways world, Donkey's a slave, Sawyer's a cop, Ben's a school teacher and Kate claims she's innocent hey, wait a minute, this isn't Lost!
The timing is not the fault of Shrek Forever After; DreamWorks couldn't have known when the year's most talked-about TV show would go into its final season. But that only serves to highlight one of the difficulties with the franchise at the end of the fourth go-round, this Shrek seems so intent on being in touch with the times that it feels out of touch with itself. Can an ogre jump a shark? I think so.