If you liked the original Shrek, I can’t imagine you won’t like this one — and perhaps even more so than the first. Shrek 2 is that rarest of rarities: the sequel that lives up to and in some ways even surpasses the parent film. It’s not unheard of: Bride of Frankenstein and X 2 also qualify in this realm. Still, it’s pretty unusual.
I’d initially entertained fears that Shrek 2 would disappoint, since it lacked the possibility of being a pleasant surprise the second time around (think Spy Kids and Spy Kids 2). And at first, it looked like this might be the case. If there’s anything wrong with Shrek 2, it’s simply that it doesn’t hit the ground running, but feels compelled — not unreasonably — to give enough back-story to be comprehensible to anyone who didn’t see the original. The results of these first few minutes are fine in themselves, but they’re never more than mildly amusing. But once the story proper gets underway, it’s quickly obvious that none of the creativity that marked Shrek has been lost in round two. (Any film that includes the line “We’ve already passed the bush shaped like Shirley Bassey twice now” is not wanting for its own peculiar sense of invention).
As before, Shrek 2 takes the traditional fairy-tale format and stands it on its head, while crafting a perfectly reasonable story of its own and serving as a wild repository of pop culture. I suppose this last bit can be attributed to the current tendency toward what is called postmodernism; but in comedy — and especially animated comedy — it’s the sort of postmodernism that has been postmodern for some time. (There’s not a whole lot of difference between a bush that resembles Shirley Bassey and a magician in a 1960s Fractured Fairy Tales who uses the “magic words ‘Roger Pryor and Aileen Pringle,’” except on the level of obscurity of reference.)
What is perhaps most surprising about Shrek 2 — and Shrek, for that matter — is the way in which it takes lowest-common-denominator pop junk and transmutes it into pure comedic gold. The first film boasted a magic mirror that played a variation on The Dating Game and included that ghastly “Pina Colada Song.” Shrek 2 takes a similar tack, though the pop songs are, if anything, even worse (“We Need a Hero”). Too, the references are also more manic — and often nothing more than a couple of seconds long, as when Puss-in Boots does a quick version of the iconic Flashdance image of Jennifer Beals being doused with water. In many ways, the closest thing to this kind of cobbled-together take on the junkiest junk imaginable is the otherwise wholly dissimilar Kill Bill Vol. 2 (the tone to the latter film is certainly different, but the impetus is very much the same).
The Shrek sequel may lack the overall surprise of the original, but it more than makes up for it in terms of the speed — and volume — of pop-culture riffs hitting the screen. While the second film’s parody of Los Angeles is not as fresh or pointed as the take on Disneyland/Disney World in the original, it’s the same kind of comic indictment of a wholly unreal society that values the surface of things over their reality. The L.A. send-up also has the somewhat broader aim of skewering the implicit hawking of what’s “ideal,” which is about on par with that of a snake-oil salesman’s pitch in terms of sheer phoniness.
Moreover, many of the targets and references are this time more wisely chosen from things that have entered our collective consciousness, whereas Shrek sometimes went for gags that were too topical (like its reference to the film Dungeons and Dragons, which was already outdated by the time of Shrek’s release). In this and in a lot of other ways, Shrek 2 is more precise in achieving its aims than is its parent.
Of course, none of this would matter were Shrek 2 not funny; happily, it is, and very much so. And after its somewhat tentative start, it’s faster and funnier and better structured than Shrek, especially upon the introduction of the Antonio Banderas-voiced Puss-in-Boots. Incredible though it may seem, the Latin heartthrob quite steals the film from Eddie Murphy’s Donkey — and Donkey is one of the great comic creations of recent times, and no less so here (witness his dismissal of being joined by Puss-in-Boots: “The position of annoying talking animal has already been filled”).
But Puss-in-Boots is even better. And as with the other creations, the film manages to imbue the animated character with the established personality — and even some of the look — of the actor giving him voice. This is exactly what you’d expect Banderas as a feline would be like — a perfect blend of cat and Banderas, created by someone who knows both very well indeed. And that may be the real secret of both Shrek movies — they’re so completely grounded in reality, despite their utter fantastication.
The postmodern approach — something that in many cases has long since worn out its welcome — works in these two films because it makes the fairy-tale nature of their stories real without completely undermining them, offering an examination of the source material rather than merely making fun of it. For instance, when Prince Charming (Rupert Everett) complains that he found a “gender-confused wolf” in the tower rather than Princess Fiona (Cameron Diaz), the scene plays not only on a modern level of humor, but reminds us that the wolf in Little Red Riding Hood actually did indulge in some cross-dressing. As with the pop-culture gags, this comes across as the good-natured observations of persons who actually like the material at hand and aren’t out to score easy points by trashing it.
And it’s this tone that makes Shrek 2 so very special — and such a sheer delight.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke