The worst thing I can think to say about Shrek the Third is that it falls far short of the first two movies in every conceivable way—except maybe as animation. The best thing I can think to say about it is that it’s mildly amusing for its entire 93 minutes, nice to look at, and it moves along nicely. I was never bored, but neither was I thrilled. Admirers of older movies might understand if I say it’s a lot like Bing and Bob’s final Paramount-produced Road picture, Road to Bali (1952). It’s OK in itself, and it offers the sense of seeing old friends once more, but even with the occasional bright spots, it’s hard to escape the feeling that the performers have reluctantly dressed up one more time just to indulge the audience rather than to really entertain them. (I will note, however, that it took Hope and Crosby five movies to get to this point.) In other words, Shrek the Third isn’t actively bad, merely perfunctory.
As someone who gave both earlier films five-star ratings, I’d hoped—despite the evidence of a painfully bland trailer—that the new film would somehow astonish me. It didn’t. There’s nothing exactly wrong with the plot, which has Shrek (Mike Myers) not wanting to succeed his late father-in-law, King Harold (John Cleese), as ruler of Far Far Away and setting out to find poor relation Prince Artie (Justin Timberlake) as a viable substitute. (The whole idea of casting Timberlake in the movie with his offscreen girlfriend Cameron Diaz probably seemed clever at the time. With that romance over, it just seems awkward.) And the idea of Shrek becoming a father is workable, if not exactly inspired. The best idea in the film—and the most fully realized—involves the attempt by Prince Charming (Rupert Everett) to take Far Far Away by force and make himself king; it comes within spitting distance of the first two chapters, but it’s not enough.
The essential problem is that the script just isn’t there, and worse, the movie has virtually become the sort of thing Shrek and Shrek 2 mocked—a pre-fab kiddie flick. Remember the terrific gag in the first film where a singing animatronic variant on Disney’s “It’s a Small World” laid down the antiseptic rules for Lord Farquaad’s (John Lithgow) “perfect kingdom?” Well, now we have Shrek fighting to save a kingdom that’s only slightly less plastic. This not only doesn’t work, it so subverts the subversiveness of the originals that it’s positively reactionary by comparison. (Maybe it’s supposed to be post-post-modern?) The freshness is gone. Several of the film’s attempts at weird humor are weird enough, but more puzzling than funny. Just what is the gag about having the populace of Far Far Away lip-synch Paul McCartney’s silly “Live and Let Die” at King Harold’s funeral? It’s odd, but so what?
The characters all seem to be on autopilot. Little of what Donkey (Eddie Murphy) and Puss in Boots (Antonio Banderas) do is all that funny—and both actors seem to know that, judging by the ho-hummery of their performances. Others—like Cleese’s King Harold and Julie Andrews’ Queen Lillian—might almost not be there. Shrek himself isn’t wasted, but apart from a pretty terrific nightmare sequence where he envisions hordes of baby Shreks, he is hardly in fine form. And Fiona (Diaz) is more plot device than character. The only one who really comes across is Prince Charming, and yet you get the sense that Rupert Everett realizes he doesn’t have to try very hard to steal the film. The new characters are mostly negligible, though Eric Idle as a befuddled new agey Merlin affords a few laughs. The pop-culture references are weak and the pop songs on the soundtrack are uninspired.
Perhaps the most telling thing about Shrek the Third is the fact that I could scarcely remember a single gag 30 minutes after it was over. All I could remember was some gorgeous production design and the fact that I had been mildly entertained. With some movies that might be enough, but not with the successor to two original and very funny films. This isn’t the rightful heir to the throne, merely a pretender. Rated PG for some crude humor, suggestive content and swashbuckling action.