Oh, for heaven’s sake, now they’ve gone and ruined Shrek, and I hate them for it. Indeed, may those responsible be damned to the eternal fires of hell. Failing that, may they at least wake up one day with their feet on the wrong way round and an elbow for an ear. How dare they? How could they? I so loved Shrek: noisome, lousy, foul-breathed Shrek. Shrek of the bottom-fumes so noxious they could wilt flowers. Not too far removed from your average bloke, then, but wasn’t Shrek kind of lovable, too? And cute and funny? And didn’t you love Donkey? ‘Parfait, parfait, everybody loves parfait.’ That’s Donkey from the first movie and it still makes me laugh even though I couldn’t tell you why or what parfait is exactly. ‘Parfait, parfait, everybody loves parfait.’ Once you start saying it you just can’t stop. The first two movies had heart, charm, wit, originality, parfait and, most unusually for an animation, characters you could properly care about. This, though, has very little of any of the above, and it breaks my heart.
The plot material is certainly not as strong as in the first two films, and may even be quite sloppy, although on paper it does sound fine. On paper it sounds like this: the king of Far, Far Away Land (John Cleese as a frog) dies and Shrek, it turns out, is next in line for the throne, presumably because Far Far Away does not subscribe to matriarchy, which, if I were Princess Fiona (Cameron Diaz), I would certainly have something to say about, but there you are. Anyway, Shrek does not want to be king. Shrek wants only to live with Fiona in his beloved swamp. So Shrek (Mike Myers), Puss in Boots (Antonio Banderas) and Donkey (Eddie Murphy) set sail in search of Fiona’s long-lost cousin Artie (Justin Timberlake). Meanwhile, Prince Charming (Rupert Everett), jilted by Fiona for Shrek two movies ago — Charming; get over it! — seizes on his rival’s absence to instigate a coup d’état.
On screen, though, it is less a decent story and more a compilation of vaudeville bits and bobs. There’s too much farce, too much slapstick, and even a magician (Merlin, played by Eric Idle) to magic away any narrative inconsistencies. There is also a great deal of singing, dancing and fighting, all, alas, at the expense of characters you might otherwise care about. Donkey and Puss are no longer central, or even funny, which I could live with, but Shrek? It’s what they’ve done to Shrek that makes me so mad.
Shrek, in this third outing, is just so respectable and benign; virtuous rather than mischievous. Further, he is hideously sentimental, even delivering, in a heart to heart with Artie, one of those ‘it’s what’s within that counts’ messages that aren’t even true, anyway. I’m beautiful inside, for example, but I never got anywhere as a supermodel. In fact, all the top agencies turned me away even though I told them my spleen, in particular, was adorable and would look good on the cover of Vogue. In short, we liked Shrek in his swamp. We liked Shrek when his only ambition was to live ‘horribly ever after’. We liked Shrek when he flattened flowers. We do not like Shrek when he peddles this kind of mawkish and mendacious crap.
Look, it’s not all bad. Although its Hollywood put-ons, insider gags and its skewering of other fairy tales does seem a little tired now, your average six-year-old will probably find Shrek the Third perfectly enjoyable. Plus, the animation is almost ridiculously superb and there are a couple of clever ideas. Prince Charming, for example, assembles all the ‘losers’ from the classic fairy tales — Captain Hook, the Evil Queen, the Big Bad Wolf and the Headless Horseman — to assist him in his fight. Don’t they deserve a ‘happy ever after’ too? And Fiona does, eventually, get in touch with her inner feminist, even recruiting Snow White, Rapunzel and Cinderella into a kick-ass cabal à la Charlie’s Angels. Quite fun.
But there’s no disguising the fact that Shrek the Third is not only less smart than before but also suffers from a bad case of one film too many. There’s a hole at its heart where the fresh ideas should be. I feel sad about this because I loved Shrek — the old Shrek— and now he’s gone. I am bereaved. But film-makers wouldn’t keep returning to the same well if they thought there wouldn’t be good box office in it, and there probably will be good box office in this. Audiences will go anyway. In fact, if anyone is to blame it is probably you, the cinema-goer. In which case: may you too wake up one day with your feet on the wrong way round and an elbow for an ear. It’s no less than you deserve.