Once upon a time, DreamWorks Animation released a film about a grumpy green ogre named Shrek and his cheeky, fast-talking sidekick Donkey. A massive box office hit (and recipient of the Best Animated Feature Oscar to boot), Shrek was a breath of fresh air for kids and adults alike, and a slap in the face of those classical (perhaps even ‘stuffy’) Disney features. All was good in the land of DreamWorks. However, eager to recapture Shrek’s success, the studio churned out film after film featuring fart jokes, pop culture references, and sharp-witted and self-satisfied protagonists (example: Shrek 2, Madagascar, Over the Hedge). A great dark cloud emerged, and suddenly DreamWorks became the studio of nightmares. The once-fresh Shrek franchise became as stale as its hero’s gaseous emissions; its quality distilled throughout several straight-to-DVD shorts, theme park attractions and a widely panned third feature film. Would the people ever forget these dark days and remember Shrek as he once was? Would anyone save DreamWorks from themselves?
Hmm, yes and no. Shrek Forever After, the fourth instalment of the series, is better than the third film – or so I’m told (I chose to sit that one out). It’s sweet, mildly funny, and a pleasant enough farewell from these once beloved characters. But there’s a somewhat melancholy tone to the proceedings, as we watch this franchise try to hold onto its final shreds of dignity while also indulging in those very elements that make Shrek seem so … well, lame. I wish I could report an overwhelmingly happy ending to match this saga’s fairytale beginnings, but we’ll instead have to settle on a bittersweet, Hal Ashby-esque finale. You may not walk out of the cinema feeling the same exaltation you did after seeing the first Shrek, but at least you’ll leave knowing it wasn’t a total waste of your time.
Shrek (Mike Myers), Fiona (Cameron Diaz) and their three bouncing bubs are living the high life – kinda – in their modest swamp at the heart of Far Far Away. Although once a fierce and frightening fiend, Shrek is now World’s Greatest Dad, getting up early to feed and change his (especially stinky) babies, letting them punch and kick him and so forth all the while. The Shreks are joined every night for dinner by Donkey (Eddie Murphy) – the Barney to Shrek’s Fred Flintstone – and Puss in Boots (Antonio Banderas), who regales them all with the wonderful story of how Shrek met his blushing bride. It’s a wonderful life indeed. But as novelty turns into routine, Shrek finds himself slipping into mid-life-crisis oblivion, wishing for things to be back the way they once were. Enter Rumplestiltskin (Walter Dohrn), offering Shrek a once-in-a-lifetime, too-good-to-be-true deal to spend one more day as a feared ogre. What could possibly go wrong? Clearly Shrek has never seen Bedazzled.
Shrek signs the contract and finds himself stuck in an alternate universe in which Rumpelstiltskin is king, Donkey is a disheartened slave and Fiona is leader of the ogre-rebellion. Oh, and he’s a criminal of the state. Realising his Capra-tastrophic mistake, Shrek announces that he didn’t know what he had until it was gone (DreamWorks have always been a little on-the-nose with their messages). Director Mike Mitchell and screenwriters Josh Klausner and Darren Lemke take an interesting approach to the latest Shrek, although it’s exactly the kind of story you would see coming from a franchise that has overstayed its welcome. The voice cast, now able to do their roles in their sleep, are charming if forgettable (except for Banderas’ Puss, who remains the best thing about the whole series). The only voice actor who puts in 110% is Dohrn as Rumplestiltskin. The result is one of the most infuriatingly grating animated characters in recent years.
I suppose I should state here that I’m not the biggest fan of the Shrek films. The first two movies don’t quite hold up to repeat viewings in the same way as other animated films (the fart jokes get old really fast, and the pop cultural references are now embarrassingly dated). The fact is – both in the storytelling and animation departments – Shrek seems like a passé relic. Not only have Disney and Pixar moved onto nabbing Best Picture Oscar nominations, but DreamWorks Animation have gone on to set new benchmarks with their films Kung Fu Panda and How To Train Your Dragon. Shrek is no longer the studio’s wunderkind, but instead the elderly, embarrassing uncle who doesn’t know when to leave.
With that out of the way, fans of Shrek should find some enjoyment from this final chapter. After all, even I did. It’s short, sweet and with less of a cruel streak than the previous pictures. As has been said of even the most tepidly reviewed animated films of the past decade, “there’s something for both the kids and their parents to enjoy”. Frankly, I’m just glad that this beast is being put to bed for good. The fairytale isn’t over for DreamWorks. They’ve got a lot of room to grow, and I honestly believe they have some great features and franchises for us in the coming years. They’ve just had to deal with the big green elephant in the room for far too long.
P.S. What is the name of this film? According to the picture’s opening credits, it’s called ‘Shrek Forever After’, but all the adverts insist that this is ‘Shrek: The Final Chapter in 3D’. I know that the kids don’t care, but this genuinely bothers me.