Only last week I noted that Shrek Forever After was bound to be better than Shrek the Third (2007)—if only because it wouldn’t have Paul McCartney’s “Live and Let Die” on the soundtrack. I hadn’t reckoned on the Carpenters’ “Top of the World” showing up this round. That put things in perspective—until I remembered Linda’s backing vocals on “Live and Let Die,” whereupon it became a hard call. That said, I didn’t actually mind this fourth entry. It’s nice to look at. The 3-D is used intelligently. The story is OK (basically, it’s Shrek in It’s a Wonderful Life). The characters are still likable. So what is the problem? Well, I got three solid laughs and one chuckle out of the whole thing. There is something wrong with that.
In order to set up this entry, the new film has to cook up a backstory that never arose in the earlier films. Here we find the king and queen (John Cleese and Julie Andrews) showing up in a kind of trailer park for witches in search of the notoriously duplicitous Rumpelstiltskin (Walt Dohrn). This all takes place before Princess Fiona (Cameron Diaz) was rescued from the tower by Shrek (Mike Myers) in the original. (Among other things, this affords an excuse to get John Cleese back, since his character expired last round.) Fortunately for the royal pair and unfortunately for the perfidious Mr. Stiltskin, word comes that Fiona has been rescued just before the king agrees to a Stiltskinian bad deal. This lays the groundwork for Rumpelstiltskin to have a grudge against Shrek.
Back in what passes for the present, Shrek is finding his life a drag. It’s the same old thing day in and day out and he misses the carefree peasant-eating days of his pre-Fiona existence. In other words, yes, Shrek is experiencing a midlife crisis. After a fight with Fiona, Shrek is easy pickings for Rumpelstiltskin and one of his less-than-square-deal contracts. Shrek gives up a day from his real life in order to get a day like the ones he remembers before he had responsibilities. Of course, the day Rumpelstiltskin takes turns out to be the day Shrek was born, meaning that not only at the end of the day will Shrek simply cease to exist, but as a result the land of Far Far Away becomes a grimly changed place controlled by Rumpelstiltskin and his army of witches. Even Shrek’s old friends don’t know him, because, well, there never was a Shrek.
The story line is fine, if not highly original. Most of the developments make narrative sense and are enjoyable enough. Having Shrek desperate to be Donkey’s (Eddie Murphy) friend, as opposed to the other way around, is a nice touch, as is the way Donkey reveals the exit clause in Shrek’s contract with Rumpelstiltskin. But the laughs and cleverness that marked the first two movies are missing. The postmodern pop-culture references and the use of old pop songs in an ironic manner have long since worn out their welcome—and the inspirations are sadly lacking in even that realm. (Drag in the “I Am a Believer” production-number ending again? Really?) The writing feels tired and stale and, ultimately, so does the movie. At best, it’s a pleasant way to kill 90 minutes. At worst, it’s disposable. In both cases, it proves that the series needs to retire. Rated PG for mild action, some rude humor and language.