This summer sees five of Hollywood's biggest film franchises pushing their luck yet again for the chance at more commercial and critical success. Two weeks ago our friendly neighborhood Spider-Man swung into the record books.
(Though, I was not particularly impressed with the film's nearly two and a half hour run time and its clumsy juggling of its half dozen plot threads.)
Next week Johnny Depp sails again in "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End." Two weeks later, June 8, we'll have George Clooney and company pulling their newest heist in "Ocean's 13." Finally, Matt Damon returns in "The Bourne Ultimatum" around two months later on August 3.
Hopefully those three upcoming "third movies" will be more like this week's light, fun "Shrek the Third" rather than the bogged-down "Spider-Man 3." If a sequel is hard, then a second follow-up can be even more difficult. All one needs to do with a sequel is up the ante a bit - push things further, provide more intense and epic action. With the third one, though, to just keep pouring in more action, one risks the cup overflowing. That's what happened with "Spider-Man 3" - more and more action, more stories, and three villains.
What "Shrek the Third" does instead is to continue to push and twist its thematic elements, not just its pyrotechnics. What the "Shrek" series is about, in essence, is the deconstruction of the fairy tale/nursery rhyme/Disney archetypes and the colorful satirical results of pushing our pop culture through that particular meat grinder. "Shrek the Third" succeeds by exploring those ideas more, not by adding more villains, action, big budget set pieces, special effects, and, usually worst of all, a longer run time.
Appropriate to the film's name, "Shrek the Third" explores three plot threads. First, the film starts out with Shrek (Mike Myers) and Fiona (Cameron Diaz) acting as surrogate rulers of Far Far Away while King Harold (John Cleese) lies sick in bed (or, rather, on lily pad.) The kingly life is not for Shrek; Murphy's Law is in full effect whenever he tries to knight a man or bless a ship. This struggle peaks when Harold dies, passing the crown on to Shrek. The ogre takes his one out: finding Fiona's cousin Arthur (Justin Timberlake,) the only other heir to the crown.
As Shrek, Donkey (Eddie Murphy,) and Puss in Boots (Antonio Banderas) set sail on their mission to find Arthur, Fiona drops the bomb: she's pregnant. The ogres are not the first couple to have babies. At the beginning of the film we see the children of Donkey and Dragon, the so-called "dronkeys," cute hybrids of their mother and father.
The film's antagonist is Charming (Rupert Everett,) the son of Fairy Godmother, the villain of "Shrek 2." Charming rallies various washed-up fairy tale baddies - tree beings, the headless horseman, a cyclops, the wicked queen, etc. While Shrek is gone they launch an assault on Far Far Away. They attack during Fiona's baby shower, forcing her, her mother (Julie Andrews) and her fairy tale princess friends - Rapunzel (Maya Rudolph,) Cinderella (Amy Sedaris,) Snow White (Amy Poehler,) and Sleeping Beauty (Cheri Oteri) - to fend for themselves.
The first two "Shrek" films were huge critical successes. Rotten Tomatoes, a popular film site that compiles and analyzes reviews to show what percentage of critics approved of a film, gave "Shrek" an 89 percent and "Shrek 2" an 88 - both very high ratings. "Shrek the Third," on the other hand, has a 44. Does that mean that it's only half as good as its predecessors? Will only half as many people like it? That you'll be only half as entertained? That you'll laugh only half as much?
I found this third installment to be just as good, if not better than, the previous two. There is really a whole lot to enjoy in "Shrek the Third." What I found particularly fun was the stronger inclusion of classic fairy tale characters. In "Shrek" and "Shrek 2" the characters that we've all known all our lives were very much relegated to the sidelines. This time they play much more of a central role. It's neat to see those classic fairy tale princesses gossiping together and acting like our modern day Paris Hilton princesses. Likewise the idea of a bunch of fairy tale villains teaming up for revenge is equally clever.
Other ideas also work effectively. The fairy tale-izized high school where Shrek, Donkey, and Puss in Boots find Arthur is very funny. I'm also a big fan of the dragon-donkey hybrids.
Overall "Shrek the Third" is light, clever, effective family entertainment. And as far as I'm concerned the series still has plenty of life in it. Two more sequels are allegedly in the works (expect them in 2010 and 2012,) as well as a spin-off film about Puss in Boots. There should still be plenty of fairy tale material to mine and themes to explore now that Shrek and Fiona are parents. You know where I'm hoping they go next? "Lord of the Rings" seems ripe for the picking...