“I don’t know how long I can keep this up!” gripes everyone’s favourite ogre at the start of Shrek The Third, as he reluctantly prepares to stand in for his ailing father-in-law at a swanky function. Too easy, perhaps, to apply his remark to a fractured fairytale franchise that has earned a monstrous $1.4 billion so far at the global box office and Farquaad knows how much more in DVD sales. Still, you can’t help thinking that DreamWorks has taken its computer-animated cash-cow about as far as it can go with a third outing that adds precious little to what has gone before.
To be fair, it takes a while for that suspicion to sink in, thanks to a spirited opening followed by a chaotic shindig – featuring a beautifully orchestrated clatter of flying belt buckles and flaming kebabs. It’s at this point, though, that director Chris Miller makes the first of several bewildering missteps, cutting to an extended deathbed sequence that literally stops the film cold. Okay, there’s some black humour to be had watching John Cleese’s Frog King croak, especially when his lily pad funeral is serenaded with an amphibian chorus of ‘Live And Let Die’. (Get the gag, Macca fans?)
Such a mordant interlude, however, inevitably saps the momentum, introducing a low-key, melancholy tone that lingers throughout Shrek’s subsequent quest to locate a more fitting heir to the throne than himself. It hardly helps that the guy he’s seeking, Princess Fiona’s long-lost cousin Artie ( Justin Timberlake) turns out to be a spineless, bullied whiner, or that Eric Idle’s late arrival as doddery magician Merlin only stirs nostalgia for Jennifer Saunders’ inexplicably AWOL Fairy Godmother.
The biggest problem, though, is that Eddie Murphy’s wise-ass Donkey and Antonio Banderas’ Puss In Boots are reduced to mere onlookers. Not only are they irrelevant, but they’re pretty much interchangeable – a fact brought home when an errant spell sees them relocated into each other’s bodies. The role of annoying animal sidekick isn’t so much taken here, as surplus to requirements. Back at Far Far Away, however, the movie is on surer ground, with a coup d’etat launched by Shrek 2’s devious Prince Charming (Rupert Everett) and a rogue’s gallery of fantasy villains providing the comedy and zip that’s conspicuously missing elsewhere. A broomstick raid on the Shrek-less kingdom gives the plot a much-needed shot in the arm, as does the Girl Power fightback which sees Cameron Diaz’s Fiona kicking Charlie’s Angels-style butt alongside Snow White, Rapunzel and Sleeping Beauty. (Nice vocal work here from SNL regulars Amy Poehler, Maya Rudolph and Cheri Oteri.) And while the usual pop culture nods are a little thin on the ground this time round, there are smiles to be had from Julie Andrews’ Queen Mum absent-mindedly humming ‘A Spoonful Of Sugar’, or the Gingerbread Man reliving his restitution to the Six Million Dollar Man theme.
From a visual standpoint this is the most accomplished Shrek to date, typified by a terrific dream sequence that sees Mike Myers’ anxious father-to-be deluged by an avalanche of gurgling, puking infants. The score is pretty ace too, composer Harry Gregson-Williams coming into his own with a third-act mock-musical that effectively trails Shrek’s impending Broadway debut. Shame the climactic face-off is such a damp squib, though, with the combined menace of Captain Hook, Stromboli and the Wicked Witch of the West proving impotent against a touchy-feely, kiss-and-make-up resolution. Myers, now as much at home in Shrek’s skin as he is in his own, breezes through it all with his familiar Celtic burr as defiantly non-Scottish as ever. Like the movie itself, however, his performance is a little too safe, with the unmistakable whiff of complacency. Not a great advert, then, for the already-greenlit Shrek The Fourth.
There's no doubt Shrek The Third will make potloads of money. Pity it shortchanges the audience with an underwhelming plot and characters you sense are just going through the motions. When it's good it's great. Overall, though, the magic is lacking.