21 May 2010

SHREK AND FORTH

A series of rattletrap Disney parodies put out by DreamWorks Animation whenever they need quick access an amount of ready cash greater than the gross domestic product of any given African nation, the Shrek films have never exactly been my cup of tea: they're snitty rather than clever, they shoulder most of the responsibility for the wholly unforgivable trend of using pop songs in place of narrative signifiers in children's cinema, they persist in aiming two very different (and equally insipid) sets of jokes at kids and parents even after the rest of the same studio's output has grown out of that habit, and despite some very handsome design, they suffer from behind-the-curve animation that never looks nearly as polished as the other release from the same studio in the same year, and is never half as good as Pixar's film from two years prior.

But even coming from that perspective, I can appreciate that 2007's Shrek the Third was a fairly massive step down in quality from the first two films: a bald cash-grab of the highest order, with little in the way of an actual story that served as anything other than an opportunity to run through established characters like items on a checklist. So this much, at least, is undeniably true: Shrek Forever After is is certainly not as bad as it could have been. The ostensibly final film in the Shrek franchise (which I'll believe the moment that everybody involved is dead, and not a second before) may not be especially funny; it may not have any tremendously compelling reason to exist; the story may be put together like a scarecrow, crudely patched together pieces that keep threatening to fall apart; everybody involved in the cast may sound like they could barely keep their eyes open for the recording session; but by God, it's not as dispiriting as Shrek the Third. At least I can tell you what the story consisted of, and I surely could not do the same for the last one.

The story, just so you know, is the latest in a tremendously long list of It's a Wonderful Life knock-offs, although it has enough distracting decoration on the edges (and a marvelously CBS sitcom-worthy inciting incident) to keep that fact from being incredibly obvious. Following the events of all those other movies, the ogre Shrek (Mike Myers) has settled into a comfortable life of domesticity in his swamp in the land of Far Far Away, living with his wife Fiona (Cameron Diaz), raising triplets, and enjoying the company of his friends Donkey (Eddie Murphy) and Puss in Boots (Antonio Banderas). It's all too comfortable, in fact, and Shrek longs for the days when he was a feared monster, coming to a head at his children's first birthday, where he essentially walks out on his family, and meets the scheming dwarf Rumpelstiltskin (Shrek the Third co-writer Walt Dohrn). Unluckily for the ogre, the dwarf has a longstanding grievance against him; he'd have taken over the kingdom years ago if not for Shrek's heroism, which is why he couches a plot to wink Shrek out of history inside an offer to live like a real ogre for just one more day. Cue a universe where Shrek never existed, and everything has gone to hell, and in the process of fixing everything, our hero learns that he already had everything he needed to make his life happy, in the form of his beautiful wife (who in this universe is the leader of an ogre resistance group against Rumpelstiltskin's witch army) and babies.

One can have, at best, only a very conditional love for a movie that all but opens with a scene that gleefully suggests that anyone living in a trailer park is, by definition, literally evil; and Shrek Forever After doesn't even shoot for conditional love. It's more of the exact same from the other movies, which mostly means a lot of anachronistic songs that nestle in comfortably alongside the anachronistic jokes about Los Angeles celebrity culture, plus some humor to the effect of, "hoho, ogres like to do gross things like fart and eat eyeballs!" Plus, the grown-ups in the audience are not merely invited, but practically forced, to confront the idea that Shrek and Fiona are having sex with each other. All of this is played to rather more degraded effect than anywhere in Shrek or Shrek 2, while not going out of its way to make you feel like an idiot for having paid to see it (and probably paid a premium, at that: the film is being heavily pushed, like every other computer-animated feature nowadays, in that fancy 3-D that everybody's so hot about; there's no reason whatsoever to bother, as it's neither gaudy nor immersive. I mostly forgot I was even watching it in 3-D). This is the nature and presumed appeal of sequels, of course: you liked it before, you'll like it again.

Maybe yes, maybe no. As Shreks go, Forever After has a borderline-sturdy story that doesn't hang together tremendously well - it's your pretty basic "we need the plot to move, so all these convenient things must happen" job - but then only the first one really had that. More damningly, Rumpelstiltskin is a remarkably non-credible villain, bouncing about and preening and having nowhere in the vicinity of enough personality to carry a lunchpail, let alone a feature film (that he was played by a non-actor, while the other films had to make do with John Lithgow and Rupert Everett, obviously doesn't help) and the scenes where we have to just sit and watch him are easily the most painful in the movie. It's also painfully ill-acted: Diaz is a trainwreck (but then, she always has been), but she's joined by just about every returning regular, who all sound tired. Myers in particular delivers every line in the exact same tone of voice, which is not exactly "flat" but certainly not at all lively. There aren't many newcomers, but it's kind of swell that the producers cast the magnificent Jane Lynch and then gave her... four lines? Maybe more. At least she gets a paycheck.

On the other side, the film is genuinely beautiful: the best-looking Shrek film without a doubt. There are scenes set in a forest at sunset that look about as good as anything in any animated film of the last couple of years, and the character animation is fluid and relaxed, far beyond the other movies in the series, which were rather distractingly notable for the stiff, mannequin like figures they tried to pass off as characters (it helps that Forever After has virtually no realistic human characters, except for crowd shots and cameos). So at least it has plenty of eye candy, if that's your bag. It makes it easy to get through the roughest patches of shrieking "jokes" and boilerplate mock-fantasy.

The thing about these Shrek movies, though, is that even though I don't like them at all, they're just not offensive enough to really dislike them (though this film's incredibly pushy "YOU HAVE KIDS THAT IS THE ONLY THING YOU NEED TO BE FULFILLED IN LIFE" rants, one of them phrased in nearly those words, are a little bit offensive). They're so commercial, is the thing, so eager to make money that you just have to shrug and say, "yeah, mercantilism, what can you do?" and move on with your life. Pretty much the most genuinely unpleasant aspect of the movie is that it undoes all the goodwill DreamWorks earned earlier this year for the elegant, delightful How to Train Your Dragon, a film that reveals just how shallow Shrek Forever After and its fast food approach to family entertainment truly is.

5/10

11 comments:

Rebecca said...

I haven't seen Shrek since I first saw it 7-ish years ago and have no intention of seeing any of the others including this one, but a couple things caught my attention:

First, do they ever make reference to Fiona being an ogre even though she never met Shrek?

And second, I can only imagine it's some sort of point in the movie's favor that they changed the title to Shrek: The Final Chapter from Shrek Forever After because I was having horrible visions of the impending Shrek 4EVA ad campaign.

Stephen said...

"First, do they ever make reference to Fiona being an ogre even though she never met Shrek?"

Hadn't she always been under the curse? It turned her into an ogre at night, as I recall. I don't remember the trailers well enough to say, but I'd imagine all her ogre scenes are night scenes.

The.Watcher said...

The first one sucked and the second was neigh unwatchable. I only got through 15 minutes of the third one (on DVD, thank God. And I lent it from a friend) and have absolutely no desire to watch this one.

Tim said...

The Fiona-as-ogre question: it's made very clear that she still becomes human during the day, and has gone to great lengths to hide this fact from other ogres.

The title: DreamWorks Animation marketing is nightmarish in this regard. Remember how How to Train Your Dragon was possibly but maybe not just called Dragons at one point?

And to The.Watcher - you speak wisdom, of the finest sort.

Raoul626 said...

Dear Rick,

What the heck exactly do you mean when you say that Cameron Diaz has always been a "trainwreck." I have not seen this movie yet, but I can tell you this: she`s come a LONG, LONG way from the one-dimensional former model who first stormed unto the scene in "The Mask." She has vastly matured into an extremely versitle actrees, who exudes MUCH depth and multi-layers.


She is an extremely talented actreess of much high caliber, who unfortunately doesn`t receive the proper praise she deserves. She`s not just a pretty face anymore! And she certainly is NOT by ANY means just a "personality," as you called Megan Fox in a previous blog entry on your "Rick`s Cafe" site!

In the future, PLEASE ponder carefully your words before you thoughtlessly write something which may offend someone!

Thank you so VERY much for your attention and consideration in this matter!!!

Tim said...

Raoul,

I think you've perhaps crossed your wires somewhere, but no worries. I appreciate your defense of Diaz's acting abilities anyway, though I must oconfess to disagreeing with it strenuously. Of the 34 roles the IMDb credits her with (which includes some cameos), I've seen about half, and I liked her in exactly one of them: Being John Malkovich. And sort of In Her Shoes. But to each his own, as they say.

Kata said...

Ummm... I don't want to sound like a rebel, please don't kill me, but I must ask this... Tim, I've read your review on Shrek the Third and I agree with it wholeheartedly - it was terrible. (I haven't seen this one and I've no intention to do so.) But at the same time I have to confess that I actually liked the first two films. So I thought... Could you explain, with a few keywords, what is so wrong with them? I feel a bit stupid for asking this as everybody in the forum seems to dislike them, but I'd be truly interested in your opinion. I don't want to be provocative, I would only like to know what you think their main problems are... (I cannot say anything about the voice actors because I've only seen them dubbed so I don't know how they are. And yes, I hate the fart jokes, too.)

Johnny said...

I thought the first Shrek was great, one of the best films ever. Upon reflection my enthusiasm has cooled but not gone away. Shrek Two (what ever you want to call it) was still good, but even more contrived than the first. The story line seemed like a bunch of stuff just kind of stuck together. I probably saw Shrek Three, but I don't remember. As for Four, I don't know, maybe if it shows up as an easy to rent DVD I will sit through it. If nothing else, I get a certain degree of entertainment from the animation.

Tim said...

A few days late, but like e-mail, I respond to comments erratically. Anyway, my complaints in the first paragraph were meant to apply to the whole series: the humor is too snide, the animation is consistently a significant measure worse than what Pixar did the same year, or even whatever else DreamWorks did the same year, and I'll toss in that the voice acting other than Mike Myers is either painfully anonymous (Diaz) or just painful (Murphy).

And I really don't like the whole pop mentality trend in children's cinema.

Johnny said...

Just a comment on the animation quality of the movie. Mixing real characters along with cartoon characters can be a hazard in a movie. This is because the audience is apt to focus on the difference and that will wreck the believability of the production. Because Shrek had both cartoon and human-like characters, DreamWorks made the decision to avoid making any part of the movie so realistic that the audience might mistake it for something real.

One can argue whether or not this was a good decision, but the somewhat unrealistic nature of the animation was not a production quality issue, it was an artistic decision.

Kata said...

It is true that pop mentality is better to be kept away from children. But I'm somewhat surprised to learn that this movie still counts as a children's movie. I think it is the same conservative attitude towards animated films which declares that comics is childish so it must be aimed at children. Shrek is not for children (at least not under a certain age), and I really don't understand the parents who bring their kids into cinema to watch it (they could know better). As for the pop crap... It didn't notice that it is so heavily emphasized in the first two films. Yes, it is there but it's not the main point. Still, it may be just me who feels like this.
Yes, the comment on the animation is true, it is not the same as Pixar's standards (even though that doesn't bother me while watching it).