ITV showed a programme over Christmas counting down the top ten family films of the last decade (don’t you just love top tens, they’ll be a regular feature of this blog in due course). Number one beating the likes of Harry Potter and Pirates of the Carribbean was Shrek. There’s good reason for this, Shrek, when it was released in 2001 was an instant classic, a perfectly judged middle-finger at Disney cheese that rammed home great gags, characters, visuals and a pretty nifty story not to mention probably the most worthwhile moral message in any animated film. Sequels were inevitable. Shrek 2 was almost as good, the story was pacey and made sense, leaving plenty of scope for laughs, introducing good new characters (Puss-in-boots, the Fairy Godmother) and not overegging the anachronistic gags. Shrek the Third spoiled the party a bit with a slightly dull story, a slew of flat new characters and an overemphasis on hipness. It looked like a great franchise was running out of steam but it didn’t feel like it had quite burned out and DreamWorks Animation aren’t shy of having another crack at a succesful franchise. After nine years and a couple of billion dollars gross the officially taglined ‘Final Chapter’ in the Shrek saga arrived in fashionable 3D.
Maybe I was a bit harsh about Shrek the Third. Shrek Forever After, as the fourth film is titled, highlights a few of its strengths. That’s not to say STT is better than SFA, quite the reverse but for all it regains in the series’ favour it loses things too. The biggest improvement is in the plot which is far more creative this time around. Shrek has grown bored of his repetitive existence and begins to yearn for the old days when people ran from him in terror rather than goggling at him from medieval tour-buses. As luck would have it he just happens to run into Rumplestiltskin who can offer him the very thing he longs for. Old Rumple (voiced brilliantly by the film’s chief story architect Walt Dohrn) offers him the chance to spend one day living life like an ogre should in exchange for one day from his past which the dodgy dealer removes from existence thus undoing everything that happened to him that day. Shrek requests if he can lose the day he met Donkey but lets the pint-sized sneak take a day from his childhood. Lo and behold he half-inches the day he was born.
We’re into Frank Capra teritory now as Shrek gets a taste of the world as it would have turned out had he never existed. It’s not a straightforward plot at all and has a couple more twists along the way and that’s to the film’s credit. There’s much more scope for originality here with the loveable green giant going through the process of meeting many of the principal characters for the first time again. While Shrek the Third felt a bit like it was drawing out its story to fill the running time there’s no such problem here with plenty of meat to the plot. The downside is the structure and pacing which feels lethargic and disjointed at times though there are a few missed opportunities holding the proceedings back too. Shrek the Third, for all its faults was nicely structured just like the first two films and it feels very much like a more focused drive for the story could have elevated the film. The fairytale world without Shrek is pretty gloomy too and this is probably the darkest film in the series in both theme and colour but the characters and gags are as dependably silly and the CG detailed enough that this doen’t matter much. It’s a mixed bag.
Where Shrek Forever After Fails the most however is in its insistence on maintaining the weak, cooky jokes that first crept into the third film. A goblin-voiced chubby boy demands Shrek ‘do the roar’, Donkey and Puss trade punny insults, Shrek breaks into awkward song to befirend Donkey, jokes like these were in the first two films but they were much better-judged, some formulae get old. But there are fewer such mis-steps than the third film and for every flat laugh there’s a hearty one. Highlights include silent newbie the Pied Piper of Hamlain tootling ogres into fancy-footed submission, Shrek relishing being scary again and pretty much everything Rumplestiltskin does.
The message is an interesting one, that you should be thankful for what you’ve got. It’s perhaps a strange thing to push at sprogs but goodness knows a lot of people should listen to it and the film handles it well enough. There’s no doubt that as many people will hate it as love it but on balance Shrek Forever After is a fun if somewhat unsatisfying final chapter in a landmark series. It’s a little sad to see it end although let’s not forget we still have the Puss-in-boots spin-off to look forward to but it’s right for DreamWorks to close the ogre’s book here, Shrek 5 would be a sequel too far.
While it gets plenty right and waves a flag of genuine originality Shrek Forever After doesn’t reclaim the high standards of the series’ first two entries. That said fans will no doubt lap up seeing their favourite characters in their inventive new scenarios and it’s a clear improvement over Shrek the Third.