In “Shrek Forever After,” the latest edition of DreamWorks’ billion-dollar animated franchise, we find the much-domesticated ogre in the midst of a major midlife meltdown. But hot cars and hotter babes won’t soothe this savage beast — he’s just looking to get his angry back.
As it happens, middle-aged angst suits Shrek and the movie quite well. After the blahs of 2007’s “Shrek the Third,” “Forever After” comes back with more heart and much of the kick-in-the-pop-culture-keister cleverness that made the greenish brute such a breath of fresh air when “Shrek” first blew into town nearly a decade ago.
Allegedly the “final chapter” — though it feels about as final as a Cher farewell tour — the film’s usual suspects are back too with Mike Myers, Cameron Diaz, Eddie Murphy and Antonio Banderas reprising Shrek, Fiona, Donkey and Puss in Boots (for those of you who really have been far, far away). Spicing up things in this round is Rumpelstiltskin (Walt Dohrn), a deviously delicious new villain with a battalion of flying witches, who, considering the fierceness of their swoop and soar, look as if they’ve been unemployed since “The Wizard of Oz.”
To scratch that angry itch, Shrek gets suckered into an ogre-for-a-day deal with Rumpel, who’s been pining to rule Far Far Away forever, and therein lies the tension that will fuel the film. There’s fine print in the paperwork, to say nothing of classic movie allusions, and before you know it, Shrek’s great escape has turned into a George Bailey reckoning and he just wants his wonderful life back. No Zuzu’s petals, but he does turn up one of the triplets’ favorite squeak-toys ...
The essential question becomes, what would a Shrek-less Far Far Away look like? This is where being fourth in line to the crown and overly animated works to “Forever After’s” advantage. With the kingdom and its characters so familiar, the filmmakers can have a field day dropping in sight gags around every corner of the old neighborhood, which, thanks to Shrek’s folly, is now a dark world of woe and real estate decline from the crumbling Far Far Away sign to legions of jailed ogres.
Bringing some much needed edge is director Mike Mitchell, whose background includes storyboarding stints on a number of animated features, including 2004’s “Shrek 2,” as well as directing the live action “Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo,” but don’t hold that against him.
What he’s managed to extract from actors and animators alike is a deeper level of emotion and one of the movie’s best features. Whether it’s the new skin each of the characters must slip into — Donkey is just a donkey, Puss is pampered beyond plump and Fiona is re-imagined as a Viking-esque warrior princess seriously working the hair — or everyone trying to make sure Shrek has a proper send off, it works.
For all the nuance of the other central characters, Mitchell lets Dohrn go a little crazy with Rumpel, in a good way that keeps you wondering not if, but when things are going to spin out of control. He is a modern-day villain, a slick, all-risk-no-reward huckster who would thrive on Wall Street — the perfect foil for the metrosexual softy Shrek has become. When Rumpel wigs out — both figuratively and literally — he nearly steals the show.
Speaking of scene stealing, one of the nicest surprises of “Forever After” is the near perfect marriage it achieves between the animation artistry, which is exceptional here, and the 3-D technology. Don’t get me wrong, the effects are snazzy enough and all sorts of things race off the screen. But they don’t out-dazzle everything else, which is how it should be in my book, though some may wish for more wow.
The story, by Josh Klausner ( “Date Night”) and Darren Lemke, still exists in Hollywood’s long shadow — contributing to Shrek’s discontent are the daily tour buses that swing by his house filled with photo-snapping fans, and Rumpel craves his 15 minutes of media fame — but it is equally comfortable back in fairy-tale land.
The bumps, when they come, tend to be battles that rage on too long, or the occasional heavy hand on the allusion front — water and witches, oh my — but for the most part the screenwriters never lose sight of the moral of this story: Whatever else gets tossed into the mix, Shrek must be the heart and soul. In this, Myers is a master; he makes it seem easy being green.
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