Can an ogre live happily ever after? Can fairy tale characters be content with their fairy tale lives? Can an Oscar-winning animated success generate a successful sequel? To all these questions, "Shrek 2" is happy to answer yes, yes and yes.
A key reason for this accomplishment is that so much of the talent of the original has returned to the new "Shrek," including one of its directors (Andrew Adamson), two of its writers (Adamson and Joe Stillman) and all three of its vocal stars: Eddie Murphy as Donkey, Cameron Diaz as Princess Fiona and Mike Myers as Shrek, the ogre that walks like a man. These are people who know how to make the trains run on time, and run on time they do.
The more anonymous heroes of "Shrek 2" are the teams of computer animators who make the story come alive on screen. There is something about the computer that seems to set animators free, that liberates their enthusiasm and enables them to come up with razzle-dazzle set pieces that are too clever to resist.
Which is a good thing, because this "Shrek" is on the slow side getting started. While the film's initial exposition is necessary to set things up, it does feel like pro forma business that has to be gotten through before the animators can go wild.
After an all-too-brief romantic interlude at Hansel's Honeymoon Hideaway, newlyweds Shrek and Fiona return home to the swamp only to be confronted with a pair of real-life problems: best friend Donkey's refusal to make himself scarce and an invitation from Fiona's folks, the King and Queen of Far Far Away, to Meet the Parents.
Though he's a trial to the young marrieds, Eddie Murphy's irrepressible, impossible to discourage beast of burden is the opposite for audiences. As Fiona and Shrek gradually morph into romantic leads, Murphy's Donkey, at least initially, carries the comic burden, bringing the perfect reading to lines such as, "How about a side of sugar for the steed?"
Less enthralling is the initial conflict-with-the-in-laws plot structure. Co-writer/co-director Adamson has said it was inspired by "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner," and there is something of the plodding nature of that film in this one's initial exposition.
Shrek and the King and Queen (Julie Andrews and John Cleese), who always thought their daughter would marry the photogenic Prince Charming (Rupert Everett), are less than enchanted by Fiona's choice of mate, and that leads to an equally predictable rift between husband and wife.
Fortunately, "Shrek 2" has two new characters up its sleeve who liven things up considerably -- one a malicious, completely insincere fairy godmother ("Absolutely Fabulous' " Jennifer Saunders) who's turned herself into a conglomerate on the Martha Stewart model but is never too busy to do good people an evil turn.
Even better is Puss in Boots, wonderfully voiced by Antonio Banderas. He goes from Shrek's nemesis to his friend, from rascally assassin to cute kitty, arousing Donkey's jealousy in the process. "The position of annoying talking animal," Murphy magisterially announces, "has been taken."
Also gradually kicking in is the film's preeminent cleverness, which extends from having Far Far Away be a recognizable (albeit medieval) Beverly Hills to showing us (in a parody of "Cops") a pepper-spray can that actually sprays pepper.
"Shrek 2" also makes a ton of references to other films and pop culture artifacts. A partial list includes use of Justin Timberlake, the Paramount gate, Love Potion No. 9, the theme from TV's "Rawhide," the surf kiss in "From Here to Eternity" and, most delicious of all, a fairy tale parody of "Mission: Impossible" with Pinocchio in the leading role.
"Shrek 2" also benefits from more elaborate visuals than the original and some great voice casting, including TV's Larry King as the Ugly Stepsister and Tom Waits as a singing Captain Hook. Its cleverness and its good heart enable it to overcome a slow start, which is how all good fairy tales end.
MPAA rating: PG, for some crude humor, a brief substance reference and some suggestive content
Times guidelines: Some flatulence humor
Cameron Diaz...Princess Fiona
Julie Andrews...Queen Lillian
John Cleese...King Harold
Antonio Banderas...Puss in Boots
Rupert Everett...Prince Charming
Jennifer Saunders...Fairy Godmother
Released by DreamWorks Pictures. Directors Andrew Adamson, Kelly Asbury, Conrad Vernon. Producers Aron Warner, David Lipman, John H. Williams. Executive producer Jeffrey Katzenberg. Screenplay Andrew Adamson and Joe Stillman and J. David Stem & David N. Weiss, from a story by Andrew Adamson, based on the book by William Steig. Editors Michael Andrews, Sim Evan-Jones. Music Harry Gregson-Williams. Production design Guillaume Aretos. Art director Steve Pilcher. Running time: 1 hour, 36 minutes.
In general release