With Friday’s release of Shrek Forever After — according to the film’s promotional subtitle, “The Final Chapter” in the hugely profitable four-part franchise — DreamWorks proves itself not above kicking a dead donkey.
Mike Myers, Cameron Diaz, Eddie Murphy and Antonio Banderas return to give voice to their now-familiar characters in the fourth installment in the nearly decade-spanning series, which began with 2001’s Shrek and was continued in 2004 by Shrek 2 and in 2007 by Shrek the Third.
Although DreamWorks presumably could have pulled the plug on the franchise after having produced a tidy and generally well-received trilogy, the studio risked diminished audience interest, low turnout and its own reputation with the unnecessary-feeling Shrek Forever After. But after the success of its first three films, the franchise now appears to be a safe enough bet that Mad Men’s Jon Hamm, Glee’s Jane Lynch, Hot Tub Time Machine’s Craig Robinson and self-confessed D-lister Kathy Griffin willingly contributed their vocal stylings to some of the film’s new characters. The markedly classier septuagenarians Julie Andrews and Larry King also reprise their roles as the Queen and ugly stepsister Doris.
Three madcap adventures in, Shrek (Myers) has now settled into comfy domesticity to raise a burgeoning family of baby ogres with his wife, full-time ogre Princess Fiona (Diaz). But Shrek’s happily-ever-after turns out to be not quite what he expected: His beloved swamp, formerly a bastion of ferocity, independence and unrefined living, now more resembles a day care than a bachelor pad, and the overwhelming responsibilities of paternity keep him from doing the things he loves most.
Beyond negotiating a tough transition into fatherhood, Shrek — now something of a celebrity in the wake of his recent heroics and marriage into royalty — must also contend with newfound feelings of emasculation. His roar no longer elicits shrieks but applause, and villagers no longer brandish pitchforks at him to keep him at bay but rather in hopes that he’ll autograph them.
After an outburst at the triplets Fergus, Farkle and Felicia’s first birthday, a dissatisfied Shrek is approached by the diminutive deal maker Rumpelstiltskin, a notorious swindler whose magically binding contracts are infamous for their deceitful fine print. Enticed by the prospect of reclaiming his ogre-hood, Shrek agrees to trade one day from his youth that Rumpelstiltskin alleges he won’t even miss for one day “to feel like a real ogre again.”
When Shrek signs the contract, he’s plunged into an alternate reality in which Puss in Boots (Banderas) is a bloated lap cat, Donkey (Murphy) is a beast of burden working for the Rumpelstiltskin crown, Fiona is the leader of a rogue band of ogre freedom-fighters and Shrek was never even born. Even disregarding the army of witches Rumpelstiltskin has sicced on him, Shrek’s desperate attempts to satisfy the terms of the contract’s exit clause — the acquisition of true love’s first kiss — before his 24 hours are up are made all the more difficult by the fact that no one from his old life even recognizes him.
Like its evergreen cash cow Shrek, DreamWorks is also unable to find contentment with what it already has. Despite having what would have been a complete trilogy in its own right already under its belt, DreamWorks elected to bring back the Shrek franchise’s enormously popular characters for a last hurrah. The resultant film retreads familiar territory and rehashes old jokes in ways that are both self-indulgent and tired. For instance, no spoiler alert is necessary to reveal that Puss’ irresistibly big kitty eyes make another appearance for one of the oldest gags in the series.
A film’s being forced to resort to a metaphysical premise is perhaps the most telling indication that the franchise has run its course. Shrek Forever After offers a perfect example of this phenomenon, relying on a plot that is as unabashedly contrived as they come. The historical revisionism enabled by Rumpelstiltskin’s sorcery makes for a plotline that is engaging and rich with Back to the Future-istic complications. But when all is said and done, this sort of story is ultimately inconsequential. Even if Shrek is successful in breaking the contract before the day is over, what is to be gained? His old life will be restored; things will go back to exactly as they were before; nothing will change. It’s hard for audiences to become invested in any story that is so lacking in any semblance of consequence for the characters involved.
Despite the overall feebleness of the plot structure, the Shrek franchise has always been character-driven. All the characters — Shrek in particular — benefit from believable motivations that contribute to their individual complexities. A montage early on in the film, for instance, briefly and effectively illustrates the soul-deadening routine of child-rearing that eventually drives Shrek to agree to Rumpelstiltskin’s offer.
Despite the occasional laugh, Shrek Forever After makes it abundantly clear that the jig is up and the story has run its course. Hopefully DreamWorks will be able to stick to its word and close the book on “The Final Chapter,” leaving Shrek and Fiona to enjoy their well-deserved happily ever after.