I would like to share a bit of received wisdom with you all: you can't tell somebody that what they're laughing at isn't funny.
Thankfully, nobody in the theater where I saw Shrek the Third was laughing very much at all, so I don't have to pretend that it was anything other than a complete waste of time.
In the interests of full disclosure, I thought pretty much exactly the same thing about Shrek and Shrek 2, and I understand that this makes me a mirthless crank. Then let me be a crank and be proud of it, for if there's one thing that I've never been able to stand it's the modern idea that the only way for a cartoon to be funny is for it to be porked out with shrill pop culture references and lowest-common-denominator sex jokes for the parents smeared on top of the lowest-common-denominator fart and shit jokes for their kids. Frankly, I'm not even sure which of those three types of "comedy" offend me the most, but I know this: the Shrek series delights to traffic in all three.
Setting aside the idea that different people have different senses of humor, what really frustrates me is the idea that an animated film needs to have two discreet levels of text for young people and older people (Dreamworks Animation does this constantly). Surely Pixar, particularly Finding Nemo, has put the lie to that notion by now. But alack, it will be more than a month yet before I get to see that studio's latest, and Shrek the Third is what I have to deal with right now.
Frankly, it's fairly clear to me that even for those who loved the first two films, this third Shrek suffers rather badly from diminishing returns. There is no narrative evolution on display here: it's an enlarged cast running through exactly the same types of jokes as the last time, and the time before that. In this corner, anachronistic pop music that's anywher from three years to decades out of date. In that corner, tiresome carping about classic Disney movies. Lastly, a bunch of gags that I'm not even sure why they're meant to be funny, particularly in this case the lengthy stretch in which Donkey (Eddie Murphy) and Puss in Boots (Antonio Banderas, here as last time the only voice actor worth a damn) swap bodies. That's the gag. Isn't it funny?
After three films, I think it's safe to assume that we "get" the milieu of Shrek and his world: fractured fairy tales for the video game generation (Where have you gone Edward Everett Horton? A nation turns its lonely eyes to you). And that was almost enough the first time, but there's no energy spent in building on that. Look, this time it's post-modern version of Snow White, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty and Rapunzel (voice respectively by Amy Poehler, Amy Sedaris, Cheri Oteri and Maya Rudolph, all tragically underused)! Look, it's the Matter of Britain - set in a high school! Justin Timberlake is Arthur! Isn't that crazy?!
Sure, it probably is, but it's also very tired, because we've seen it before. This is the worst kind of sequel, the kind that refuses to add anything new whatsoever to the table for fear of tweaking the formula so much that people don't want to spend money hand over fist to watch it. Fine, whatever. I've resigned myself to the idea that summer movies are about being safe bets, and the occasional great movie is mere accident. But I don't have to pretend that it's defensible, or that I sat through the theater in anything other than stony silence.
I don't think, as some seem to, that this is the film that will kill Shrek. I think that the people who loved the first two will merely like this one, the people who merely liked the first will dislike this one, and the people like myself who disliked the first two will continue to just dislike this one. For God's sake, you can't hate Shrek the Third. It's far too open in its desires (MAKING MONEY) to be hate-worthy. I knew when the summer started that this was doomed to be the most personality-free film of the summer, and I was right.
Besides, you can't hate a movie that is, honestly, this beautiful. Yes, yes, the Shrek films were always nice to look at as still images, but I always found something cringe-worthy in the animation itself, a robotic stiffness to the characters' movements that plunked them deep in the Uncanny Valley. That's mostly not a problem here, with a few exceptions (anyone in a crowd scene, the villainous Prince Charming). There are scenes which, if not for the large green ogre in the center, would be close to indistinguishable from live-action. It's as well-animated as any CGI movie I've ever seen, and that's not nothing. That is, indeed, quite a lot. Not enough to pretend that the script it good, but enough that I'll never get around to calling this the worst film of the summer.
And as long as I'm being generous, I'll admit that there was one moment that I not only laughed at (actually, I laughed a few times, but I mostly don't remember the gags that I laughed at), but actually caught myself respecting how clever the filmmakers were for including it , even though it ran aground of the bitchy Disney-bashing that has always been one of the most tiresome elements of the series. In one scene, Snow White is singing a twerpy little piece about the animals in the forest, and her song is in that distinctively fuzzy mono sound that plagues Walt's own early musicals. To be honest, I suspect that my response to that gag says a lot more about me than it does about Shrek the Third.