The first two "Shrek" movies, in 2001 and 2004 (the latter of which now sits comfortably at #3 on the all-time domestic box office list), had essentially the same plot: Ogre loves princess; love trouble ensues; talking donkey makes wisecracks; love conquers all. "Shrek the Third," for all its faults, comes up with something novel this time around. The handsome villain Prince Charming (lubriciously voiced by Rupert Everett) returns to the Kingdom of Far Far Away to wreak his revenge ... and does so by staging a musical.
The idea of usurping the throne by presenting an utterly random, half-baked imitation of "The Phantom of the Opera" crossed with "Spamalot" is so delicious, grown-up viewers of "Shrek the Third" may well find themselves completely distracted. (Perhaps Prince Charles might wish to mull the concept over.) Alas, once we've had our fun with this particular plot point, we realize that the reason it stands out is because the rest of the movie just isn't that funny.
This time around, Shrek (Mike Myers) and wife Fiona (Cameron Diaz) are expecting a little Shreklet, and they're working out some Relationship Issues around that, and Far Far Away needs a new king, and the donkey (Eddie Murphy) and his furry, nattily shod sidekick Puss in Boots (Antonio Banderas) wisecrack a lot.
All this may be quite enough for kids looking for something snappy to accompany their popcorn and Skittles, and certainly the two grade-schoolers who joined me for the screening giggled throughout and had a fine time.
But those of us charmed by the original "Shrek" (and, to a lesser extent, the second one) and its ability to mix fairy-tale sweetness with some hilariously grown-up cleverness — much of which sailed happily above the heads of the kiddies — will leave disappointed. Much of this "Shrek" feels like a retread, a cash cow without enough ideas to justify its existence. The four screenwriters (including the film's director, Chris Miller) can't seem to create much excitement in the warmed-over plot, instead relying on the same old shtick.
And sometimes that shtick is a kick, particularly a funeral at which a melancholy chorus of frogs belts out "Live and Let Die" (yes, the Wings version) like they mean it, and, later, someone's note-perfect delivery of the classic battle line "Look out! They've got a piano!"
A few insider jokes sneak through, too, such as when the Queen (voiced by Julie Andrews), momentarily stunned by bashing her head against a wall, suddenly hums a few bars from a "Mary Poppins" tune.
The animation is first-rate (note how you can see every stitch in Shrek's ratty sweater) and the voice work is A-list; particularly Murphy, who's got a way of making every line seem utterly spontaneous.
So no, "Shrek the Third" isn't a disaster. But it's an example of how a meal can be delightful at its first appearance, pretty good warmed up for leftovers, and still OK but getting flavorless by its third appearance. This franchise is coasting; maybe it's time to apply the brakes.
Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Showtimes and trailer
"Shrek the Third," with the voices of Mike Myers, Eddie Murphy, Cameron Diaz, Antonio Banderas, Julie Andrews, John Cleese, Rupert Everett, Justin Timberlake and Eric Idle. Directed by Chris Miller from a screenplay by Jeffrey Price, Peter S. Seaman, Miller and Aron Warner, based on the book by William Steig.
93 minutes. Rated PG for some crude humor, suggestive content and swashbuckling action. Opening late tonight in several theaters; opens wide Friday.