Things the writers of Shrek are adamant are funny:
Eddie Murphy singing modern songs in an anachronistic setting
Things that have been run into the ground and are no longer funny and on retrospect were only a little funny to begin with and it all depends on context anyway you can’t just have him burst into song in any scene:
Eddie Murphy singing modern songs in an anachronistic setting
The Shrek series began as just a surprisingly smart and funny animated satire of fairy tale clichés. But now over four films DreamWorks have managed to evolve the series into a redundant, mediocre cliché of itself. Yes it’s all the way up there now with other such mediocre delights like Shark Tale, Over the Hedge and Madagascar. Whilst Pixar wallowed in telling new and innovative stories, DreamWorks saw that true talent is taking a successful film, reducing it to its base elements, sapping the life out of any unique aspects by just repeating them, and then slapping that together around a semi-coherent story.
Shrek Forever After is the fourth and hopefully final film about a Scottish ogre living near Disney World. Our title character begins the film in the “happily ever after” part of fairy tales; he’s got the wife, the kids, the friend, the swamp. What more could an ogre want? But as the early montage shows us blissful happiness gets pretty repetitive and sometimes the crappier moments outshine the good parts. Shrek starts to pine for his younger years, when life was easier; when children were scared of him and farmers chased him with pitchforks; when he was a real ogre.
I kinda like this angle, I know it’s far from original and the idea of “the American dream isn’t all it’s cracked up to be” is just as cliché as the “they get together, get married and everything from then on is blissful!” but it’s just weird to see it in an animated kids film that amuses me.
Although why is it the woman that’s always happy in the married life and the man who has the mid- life crisis? I can’t decide if that is positively painting the woman as more mature; or negatively saying they’re naturally meant to be in the mother role so happy with her lot in life. I mean Fiona spent a lot of her life locked up, maybe she’d enjoy going out adventuring? Alternate dimension Fiona seems to enjoy the adventuring and fighting. Oh, though it does then present her as secretly wanting to find her true love. So I guess that’s the important moral message of this Shrek film: even powerful and strong women just want their true love to come save them. Wait, did I say moral? I meant perpetuating an old and misogynistic image of women in a film series that tried to combat those old ideas often presented in fairy tales by satirising them. Ho hum.
Oh yeah the alternate dimension thing. So it turns out that off screen during Shrek 1 (or 2? Not that it matters) Fiona’s parents went to Rumpelstiltskin to make a deal; their kingdom for Fiona to be saved from the tower. But as we know from the first film, Shrek saved her, and so they don’t bother to sign the deal, and Stiltskin feels like Shrek took away his chance to be ruler. This is presented in a fairy tale book at the beginning of the film that Stiltskin is reading venomously, again I like this stuff. I’m a sucker for film sequels that spiral out from events in the first film, that events in it were more important than we thought, another character was doing something we didn’t know about etc. When Rumple finds Shrek unhappy with his current situation he convinces him to sign a contract that, unbeknownst to Shrek, signs away the day he was born, and creating an “It’s a Wonderful Life” alternative reality where Rumple rules the kingdom and ogres are freedom fighters. It’s no Back to the Future II, but the plotting of the film is definitely a lot tighter than Shrek the Third and even Shrek 2. There’s a clear mission, no meandering around like the third film – it suffers from some solution stalling (just show alt-Fiona the contract and explain what happened from the beginning ffs) but other than that it’s competently structured.
The real killer is that Shrek Forever After feels like someone made bullet points on ‘things people remember about the first film’ then just filmed that. There’s action beats at the same moments, wistful pop tunes play in the background to many of these, Donkey sings, Shrek has a melodramatic touchy feely moment where he realises his mistake, characters return and have variations on jokes they were in from the first two films etc. Shrek has an emotional realisation scene about 8 times during the film, and that’s no exaggeration. And it’s the same thing each time “yeah I didn’t realise what I’d got till it’s gone”, just done over and over in different ways. It’s boring and reduces Shrek’s character to being kind of whiney and it really unbalances the film. Where there should be jokes we have more lame attempts at cheap emotion. Where there should be a more serious moment we have lame jokes.
Continuing the trend of re-interpretations of fairy tale characters we’re introduced to The Pied Piper half way into the film. In the Shrek universe he’s a bounty hunter who can use his pipe to control nearly any creature. It’s a cool concept and I really like the character’s design but he’s really underused. Being able to completely control someone’s body movements is a scary power, but it’s only ever presented for laughs as he makes ogres dance to flute-y versions of pop songs. (What is the Shrek films obsession with characters signing or dancing to modern songs? 90% of Donkey’s dialogue consists of that, it’s not funny anymore, you’ve run that joke into the ground around the time Shrek 3 began) The film isn’t exactly brimmed full of jokes so maybe I shouldn’t be dismissing them for actually trying to include some but when there’s meant to be so much at stake (Shrek’s very existence ffs!) the films feels way too safe and threat-less. They could have made something of the Piper, had him as the physical threat, but instead he disappears towards the end of the film (and his actions earlier in the film are undone within minutes so entirely pointless) which again seems to miss a really obvious chance to use him as a more threatening villain. I kept expecting some dramatic scene of Shrek having to break free of the Piper’s power but it never came and the ending they did provide just kind of splutters as it clumsily arrives at its conclusion.
There’s no real charm to it, no craft, it’s just repetition of the surface stuff. People want the same thing right? Shrek 2 got away with repeating ideas and humour from the first film because it still felt like they were trying to make a proper film. The story was involving, the set pieces exciting, the expanded cast were hilarious and the finale was epic. In Shrek Forever After there’s far more at stake plot-wise than in previous Shrek films, but it’s never presented like that on film, it’s just going through the motions.
It’s not abysmal, I laughed a few times and the story idea is interesting. But if there’s one word to describe the film it’s lazy. Everything about the film feels lazily executed, the plot might be trying something different but everything else in it is just a lazy retread of jokes, characters, situations of the previous Shrek films, but lacking any of the excitement, inventiveness, talent or humour of Shrek 1 and 2. It’s still better than Shrek the Third, but that ain’t saying much.