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.